Disability, a topic often deftly sidestepped within the confines of a fitness center, deserves our attention. As personal trainers or gym owners, we have the power to make dramatic changes towards improving the lives of billions of people …one open-minded step at a time. The first step in creating this accepting, accessible environment of fitness towards those with special needs or disabilities is inclusivity.

Fostering Change for Good

Since a good percentage of individuals worldwide prioritize health and fitness, public facilities today strive to meet these needs with quality equipment, creative programming, and knowledgeable professionals. Sadly, to date, personal trainers and gym managers still fall short in their comfort level, experience, risk assessment/management, and other tools required to train clients with unique needs. Rather than maintain the status quo of rigid and sometimes intimidating gym environments, our industry must step forward and embody the change we wish to see in the fitness world.

As many as 98% of the world’s population experience varying degrees of physical limitation at some point in their lives. An estimated 1.5 billion people currently live with a disability. In our profession, we must own the responsibility of encouraging activity, not just among healthy individuals, but within an entire community: the young, old, chronically ill, and those with disabilities.

Inclusivity and Language

A comment that none of us in the fitness industry should ever encounter, but nonetheless does occur, points to the weakest yet most correctable link in our system. A health club member overheard a trainer telling another member that he was not able-bodied enough to be using the gym’s equipment and perhaps he should leave. Such powerful words not only hurt but further isolate this already challenged individual, unnecessarily crushing one’s spirit in the process.

When speaking either about or to clients within any special demographic, fitness professionals would do well to choose their words carefully. We must avoid labels that focus on limitations rather than strengths, such as victim, handicapped, or wheelchair-bound. As the father of a neurologically-challenged teen once told me, “Hannah is not handicapped; we think of her as handi-capable.” What a positive and reaffirming outlook!

Embracing and Enriching Inclusivity

“Inclusivity” in our gym environment refers to making fitness accessible to all individuals, regardless of ability or status. UFIT (Universal Fitness Innovation and Transformation), a program striving to make fitness accessible to individuals with disabilities, represents a collaboration between UNESCO and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Positive action begins by recognizing the fitness-related barriers often faced by those with disabilities: time, cost, transportation, lack of social support, and diminished self-efficacy. Creating a culture of inclusion, a mandatory moral endeavor, has far-reaching potential. According to Alex Black Larcom, MPH, RD, LDN, Senior Manager of Health Promotion/Policy at IHRS, “People with disabilities are more likely to be insufficiently active compared to peers without disabilities. When fitness centers make their services and facilities more welcoming and inclusive, they are providing an important service to a large market that has been previously underserved.”

While not all gyms can address every barrier facing disabled individuals, many can embrace this as an opportunity to make a savvy and strategic business model shift. “Inclusivity is everything,” says Tiphany Adams, an athletic wheelchair user. “We can do everything that anyone else does, we just do it slightly differently.”

What is our Priority?

A National Business and Disability Council survey shows that inclusion ranks as a top priority for consumers seeking to join a gym or community center. As a trainer, ask yourself this: can a visually impaired woman, a teen with a prosthetic leg, or a young man affected by neurological issues walk into your gym and begin exercising, without having to ask if your facility can accommodate them?

Recently UNESCO undertook a study of health clubs purposely designed to facilitate safe and successful workouts for diverse populations, including people with disabilities. Of those included in the study, 72% of the clubs reported increased customer loyalty and 51% noticed increases in revenue.

Larcom at IHRS shares her reasoning: “Accessibility refers to whether or not a person can physically get to a location or utilize a service,” she says. “Inclusivity refers more to whether that person feels welcome, comfortable, and at home in that location or using that service.”

More than Mobility Challenges

Exercise inclusivity should not be limited to only disabled individuals. Those within the LGBTQIA community, people of color, as well as people dealing with body-shaming challenges often end up feeling just as isolated resulting from societal attitudes and prejudices. For these individuals, simply walking into a gym can feel overwhelming.

The presence of trainers with diverse backgrounds who refrain from passing unwarranted judgment helps create a comfortable atmosphere. Adopting the simple practice of inquiring about a client’s preferred pronoun identity likewise lends credence to a fitness center’s atmosphere of universal acceptance, every bit as much as working within the confines of a client’s physical limitations. This also sets the groundwork for one’s commitment to a new workout plan.

Grasping Goals

Karen Preene, a UK-based fitness instructor and personal trainer, understands that all clients and gym-goers have unique needs and agendas. Her platform remains simple and honest: “Not everyone who wants to exercise wants to lose weight; and a trainer’s assumption of this, plus the aggressive promotion and marketing towards weight loss, creates barriers for people just wanting to access fitness.” The same holds true for those individuals attempting to get in shape while dealing with physical challenges. Weight loss does not necessarily top every client’s wish list. Often just finding an accepting community with knowledgeable staff opens up the world of movement previously shied away from for so many reasons.

Training able-bodied clients and elite athletes tend to adhere to the key points absorbed by aspiring personal trainers straight from the textbooks we read and seminars we attend. While we certainly can comprehend the tenets of training special populations in this same fashion, the subtleties of a client’s disability and his how he views his condition only comes with experience. The more opportunities we have to interact with, learn from and train such individuals, the more we can grow not just within our profession but as compassionate and patient adults. Never forego the chance to reach out; the change you make in just one life can enrich your world immeasurably.










Cathleen Kronemer

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at trainhard@kronemer.com. She welcomes your feedback and your comments!