Why do disabled people rarely appear on marketing materials for fitness clubs, gyms, and sportswear? Moreover, why do we seldom see such people openly engaging in sports and health activities?
It’s not because they don’t need exercise. According to the US Department of Health, people with some physical or mental disability are twice as likely to be inactive than those without a disability. And obesity rates for adults with disabilities are 57% higher than for adults without disabilities. These alarming numbers prove that we have failed to create an inclusive environment for people with different abilities in our health spaces.
Thirty years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed to ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities. The Act requires health clubs to have facilities such as wheelchair-accessible ramps, showers, water fountains, and much more. But these requirements have traditionally meant little more than an additional building expense, according to Helen Durkin, the Executive Vice President at IHRSA (International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association). In an interview earlier this year, she remarked that the ADA is built on the premise of ‘build it.’ And now, club and gym owners realize that just by building wheelchair entrances, disabled people are not going to come.
I couldn’t agree more. A friend of mine who has a condition, last year endeavored to join his college gym. Being imposed with dwarfism, you can imagine the determination it demanded of him. However, after two weeks, he left and took up an online fitness class after receiving a negative comment from a fellow gym-goer. He was told that the machines were not built to suit him and he would be safer at home!
Incidents such as this are common, and no amount of legislature can eliminate them. What we need to do instead is create a welcoming environment by removing the uncomfortable barriers that people such as my friend face every day.
People with disabilities represent a vast, untapped market for gyms and fitness instructors. In the US, 26% of people live with a physical or mental disability, which is approximately 61 million people. In the UK, the number is 22%. That’s 1 in 5 people who are not being served by fitness and wellness businesses! However, companies now realize that we need to go beyond the traditional 20% that they have served, going above brick-and-mortar alterations.
For people with disabilities, accessibility is not just about having fitness centers designed for comfort; it also means having Certified Inclusive Fitness Trainers in your location. Not only are trained staff and inclusive marketing the absolute right thing to include in your company culture, but it is also very good for business. 57% of managers reported that their clubs benefited from the enhanced image, and 51% reported an increase in revenue when health clubs were inclusive to people with disabilities.
Although we have a long way to go to, 2020 seems like a promising year to reshape businesses to serve a broader range of individuals. Working from home has exponentially increased, forcing virtual workouts to take place over in-studio classes. Going online has made boutique fitness accessible and more affordable. People can now access classes of top trainers for a fraction of the price online. According to Jen Tallman, a group fitness instructor in New York, it’s not just the pandemic that has spurred this trend, people are busier and want to access classes on the go. Online classes have diversified the population such instructors can work with and the number of people they can help simultaneously.
How You Can Create an Inclusive Fitness Club and Center
To implement changes that stick, we need to start thinking intentionally about the environment. People have different needs, and the design and culture of the environment may disempower them. Once we shift our mindset to viewing the limitations in the environment as a disability, we’ll have taken the first step to mainstream diversity.
Mainstreaming diversity refers to a society that accepts and provides for everyone, no matter their abilities, race, religion, or gender. It’s a world where people won’t have to ask whether you can accommodate their individual needs in your classes. One of the best steps that business owners and individual trainers alike can take for people with different abilities is to not work for them, work with them.
If you are a gym owner or instructor, I recommend you download this free resource created by Larcom in partnership with UNESCO Chair in Inclusive Physical Education, Sport, Fitness and Recreation, UFIT, and the IHRSA Foundation. It’s a fantastic guide full of steps you can implement to create and enforce inclusivity in your space.