Most would agree that people with disabilities should have access to the same wellness programs as everyone else. However, whether intended or not, most fitness centers are designed for and cater to those without disabilities. Considering greater accessibility and inclusivity in your fitness center design and programming is not only important, it is imperative to reach a wider client base.

A Few Statistics

To emphasize the importance of service to this population, let’s look at some related statistics. The United States is estimated to have a population over 332 million (census.gov), and of those, 61 million (roughly one in four adults) are living with some type of disability (cdc.gov). We know there is an opportunity because according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, roughly 25.6% of those are inactive (health.gov). As health and wellness providers, this is not only a moral imperative to help this group, but this is a large underserved customer base that can improve your business.

What is Accessibility and Inclusivity?

The first thing to understand is the difference between the two terms, accessibility and inclusivity. In its simplest form, accessibility refers to whether or not a person can access something. When referring to a fitness center, accessibility ensures that people with disabilities have physical access to and are able to appropriately and safely use the facility and its amenities. On the other hand, inclusivity speaks to how “included” a person feels. Inclusivity, as it relates to your business and those with disabilities, refers to creating an environment that makes people feel welcome and comfortable. The two concepts are distinct but very connected to one another as you can see.

Barriers

Removing barriers that prevent wheelchair users and those with other disabilities from accessing the full fitness experience can begin with some simple changes, but first we need to recognize what the obstacles are. Some of the more common barriers are things like time, transportation, lack of social support, and self-efficacy (belief in one’s own capacity to perform). However, things like appropriate training, programming, and equipment are often overlooked. If fitness centers or wellness centers are missing these components, someone with a disability may not have the access they need and likely may not feel welcome or comfortable in your location. Below are a few tips to creating an accessible and inclusive fitness center.

5 Ways to Make Your Fitness Center Accessible and Inclusive:

1. Physical Space

First, the physical space of your wellness center or gym is extremely important for those using mobility aids or wheelchairs. Some of this may be obvious, especially after Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance during the inspection stage of a new building. However, once the inspectors are gone and time has passed, furniture and equipment, or even something as simple as plants, gets moved around. Access routes that are crucial to providing maneuverability in all areas of your facility become cluttered. Someone with a mobility device may no longer be able to properly navigate, making them feel unsafe and not included. Below is an ADA recommendation for wheelchair turning space:

2. Appropriate Programs and Classes

Whether offering group exercise classes or personal training, instructors and trainers should always cater to a wide range of abilities. For example, specialized group classes could be offered to those with limited mobility or low fitness levels. When performing personal training to individuals living with paralysis or other disabilities, it is important to know their specific limitations and how to best assist them. A group such as the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and disability (NDHPAD) can be a great resource for training and educating disability and non-disability service providers. To get started, here are 8 popular exercises for wheelchair users.

3. Staff Personnel and Training

When it comes to fitness center staff, whether in an administrative or programmatic position, everyone should have a level of comfort and training to effectively serve those living with disabilities. The onboarding of new staff members, as well as continued education, should go beyond the basics of sensitivity training and include practical ways to assist and accommodate those with impairments. Setting high expectations for your staff is also important. Group fitness instructors and personal trainers should know how to physically assist people based on their specific limitations. Able Access is a group that offers a wide variety of training and best practices to help provide those with various disabilities the access that they need.

4. Accessible Exercise Equipment

Accessible machines and equipment are vital to strength training programs that provide independent workouts, as well as those that are guided. Independence is a key feature of ADA and should be deeply considered by fitness and wellness centers. HUR’s accessible line of equipment is one such example that allows wheelchair users and those without disabilities to train on the same equipment. With an easy swipe of an RFID band, HUR’s SmartTouch system automatically loads a client’s resistance level, eliminating the burden of having to bend and adjust weight plates. The system can also automatically increase resistance based on overperformance by the client.

5. Outreach/Marketing

Creating an inviting and welcoming environment first starts with getting people to know about your center and what you offer. You can’t give your clients the accessibility and inclusivity they desire and deserve if they don’t know about it. Your website and other marketing materials are great places to start spreading the word. For starters, the visually impaired may use screen readers or text to speech software, so it is important that websites are clear and concise. Plain and simple language may help those with intellectual impairments. Also, your website, brochures, and even your commercials should include people and images related to those living with disabilities that you are able and desire to serve.

Fitness centers and wellness communities may not be able to overcome every single barrier that a person with a disability is facing, but you do have the power to create an environment that is both accessible and inclusive, one that is inviting and helpful for all. Wellness facilities that ensure and promote these qualities make this group feel welcomed and valued. 61 million disabled Americans are a lot of potential customers. Being accessible and inclusive is not only the right thing to do, it makes wonderful business sense as well.

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