Most fitness spaces completely ignore disabled bodies. Thankfully, things are starting to change, but there’s still room for growth


wWhether in the water or on land, low intensity or high intensity, moving your body is something everyone should have the opportunity to do. But all too often, fitness communities are created without ramps or space to maneuver a wheelchair, and filled with machines designed only for people without disabilities. Early in my fitness journey, there were no spaces, platforms or groups geared towards helping people like me exercise, says paraplegic athlete Zion Clark, a wrestler, Guinness World Record holder and FitXR coach. With no legs due to a birth defect, Clarke has had trouble finding gyms that he could navigate independently and with the equipment he could use.

Despite common misconceptions to the contrary, the disabled community makes up a significant portion of the adult population. In the United States, approximately 61 million adults have a motor, vision, hearing, cognitive, or self-care disability. This is more than a quarter (27%) of the population.

Yet few gyms or fitness studios are accessible to wheelchairs, smart canes, and other assistive devices, and few fitness professionals are prepared to develop exercise programs or offer appropriate modifications for individuals with physical disabilities. This may be partly because so many fitness spaces are founded by trainers without disabilities and accessibility issues don’t cross their radar because people with disabilities don’t feel welcomed, so their paths never cross.

Fortunately, some legitimate steps towards greater inclusiveness have been made in the last couple of years alone. Proof: In 2021, the CrossFit Games finally offered a division for adaptive athletes—that is, people with physical or neurological conditions—to compete in the sport. That same year, Peloton hired an adaptive training consultant and released an adaptive training collection. Both Nike and Tonal now offer courses for adaptive athletes.

There are also more machines that can be used by people with disabilities than ever before. For example, a new deadlift attachment allows one-armed people to deadlift. There are bikes that allow wheelchair users to pedal. And now we have rowing machines created with vision impairments in mind.


And today, a handful of fitness studios across the country like Split Second Fitness in New Orleans, Unified Health and Performance in Massachusetts, Iron Adaptive in Missouri, and Deaf Planet Soul in Chicago cater specifically to the disability community.

Without a doubt, these examples remain the exception to the rule. Typical gym spaces still aren’t functional for many people with disabilities, says Mark Raymond Jr., founder of the nonprofit Split Second Foundation and C-5 quadriplegic. In general, the average commercial gym isn’t prepared to house or train people who can’t walk or can’t see, for example.

And this oversight is doing a major disservice to people with disabilities. As CrossFit Games adaptive athlete Logan Aldridge, a Peloton instructor who teaches strength, tread and adaptive training classes, points out, exercise gives people with disabilities a variety of new skills and abilities, such as the ability to pick boxes, access new ranges of motion, walk without assistance, and more.

Additionally, the mental health benefits of exercise can be especially beneficial, says Barbara Chancey, founder of Barbara Chancey Design Group, the design firm behind Texas-based CYCED, the first indoor cycling studio with custom bicycles for Adaptive Riders. In fact, research has found that people living with physical disabilities are three times more likely to suffer from depression. Isolation is a growing concern [for] those with disabilities, as they are much more likely to be socially withdrawn, says Chancey. The exercise provides an opportunity to engage in group activities and the surrounding environment.

The fact is that only when all fitness facilities are designed for wheelchair access and equipped with machines designed for individuals with physical disabilities and trainer certifications require knowledge of working with clientele with disabilities will the world of fitness will be truly accessible.

And as Jamal Hill, a Paralympic swimming medalist with Team USA, points out, it’s a move that simply makes smart financial sense. Promoting inclusivity in the fitness industry is the right thing to do, but it’s also good for business, he says. By serving the needs of a diverse range of customers, gyms and fitness centers can tap into a previously untapped market and improve their bottom line.

So what can gyms do to be more accessible?

If you’re a fitness professional and want to support or make a change in your gym, here are some expert advice:


1. Make your marketing material inclusive

The images you use in your gym marketing (including your social media posts and website design) show the kind of bodies you believe you belong. Ditto for the art you hang in your space. Make sure your photos include athletes of all abilities, says Aldridge, as well as presentation, size and genre competition. Better yet, hire adaptive athletes to model in your campaigns!

These images, however, must not mislead potential members. Don’t hang photographs of wheelchair athletes, for example, if your space isn’t wheelchair accessible.

2. Put your money where your marketing is

The show is just the beginning. To be truly accessible, gyms also need to proactively create accessible spaces and programs, says Hill. This includes investing in adaptive equipment. For example, a gym might buy machines with adjustable seats or stands or resistance bands that can be used from a seated position, she says. This also includes offering specific lessons for the adaptive community, or be sure that all of your workouts can be modified for people of all different abilities, Hill says.

Ask: Who can enter the facility? Is there a ramp or are there just stairs? Likewise, who can move around the facility with ease? It just comes from an empathic perspective of, if I were in a wheelchair or couldn’t see, how would I operate in this facility? says Aldridge. Something like labia minora in gym floors and small elevation changes can be quite significant in impairing the ability to navigate for a wheelchair athlete, she explains. Accessible gyms know this and work to minimize it.

And don’t forget your bathrooms, says Raymond. Toilets, including lockers and showers, also need to be accessible, he says. Stationary benches in these small spaces are the worst, he says.

To be clear, there are some accommodations that arent it will always be immediately apparent. Disability counselors and coordinators are experts at looking at a space and outlining what needs to be updated.

3. Take stock of who you’re hiring

Another important aspect of creating an accessible and inclusive fitness space is hiring trainers and instructors with different body types and abilities, says Hill. Not only does this give athletes with disabilities opportunities to work in the industry, but it also helps break down stereotypes about what a fit body should look like, she says. The same goes for the gym staff members.


4. Provide staff accessibility training

Gyms should ensure that their staff are trained in working with people with disabilities, Hill says. ACE Fitness, for example, offers a certification called Adaptive Fitness for Clients with Special Needs, while CrossFit offers an online course called the Adaptive Training Academy. These courses include information on how to modify exercises, use equipment, and provide proper support, Hill says. Gyms may also provide disability inclusion training for their staff.

Remember: true accessibility includes the language we use. A coach who calls himself OCD when he wants to fix the room just so or an instructor who says it’s lame to modify an exercise to show skillful language (and thought patterns) at work. More likely than not, it’s probably not intentional. But it’s phrases like these that can end up shutting people out.

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