Trainers Need to Start Learning How to Work With Differently Abled People

Trainers and gyms are failing disabled people in a lot of ways. Does changing this pattern mean changing an entire culture of ableism?

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09 April 2019, 5:04am

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

A few years ago, Brenda, a 57-year-old woman with fibromyalgia and myalgic encephalomyelitis, told Emma Richardson, a fellow at the University of Alabama who studies the experiences of people with disabilities in gyms, fitness centers, and health clubs, a horror story about her attempts to work out with a trainer. Regular exercise can help people with fibromyalgia and ME, conditions characterized by chronic pain and fatigue, among other symptoms—but only in moderation and with modifications tailored to one’s physical limits. Brenda knew this, and her limits. But when she tried to tell the trainer she was working with that she needed to get off a leg press because she was about to hit a hard limit, he told her no pain no gain. He convinced her to push through 20 more reps. “And it killed me,” she told Richardson. “I got off it, before I knew it, I was flat on my bum, looking at the ceiling. My knee gave way.”

Then he told her that, as soon as she got back up, she had to hit the treadmill immediately.

This may sound like an isolated story about a particularly cruel and dismissive trainer. But many people with disabilities have similar stories—myself included. The last time I tried to work with a trainer a couple of years back, I informed him that I have a neurological disorder and heart issues and described the way they affect me. He told me his training program would be fine for someone in my position. So I chose to trust him, came in for a session, and within ten minutes found myself on the edge of of consciousness on the floor, my head swimming. The trainer later chastised me for supposedly not sufficiently explaining my conditions to him.

“The vast majority of trainers and fitness facilities have always been willing to work with clients with disabilities,” says Alex Black Larcom, a rep from the International Health, Racquet, and Sports Club Association. That may be the official party line, but Richardson and her colleagues' research has found that many disabled people have trouble finding trainers to work with them. This is especially true for people with visible disabilities, but people who disclose invisible disabilities, like heart or brain issues or developmental or cognitive limitations, can face challenges too.

Those who do find trainers to work with them often report that they refuse to make requested accommodations, as in Brenda’s case. Or that trainers treat them like fragile dolls. Or that trainers disrespect them. Or that they have to spend a fair chunk of their workout training time calming down nervous trainers.

The majority of the 53 million American adults with disabilities are capable of being active and reaping associated health benefits. But only about a third engage in routine physical activity, a much lower rate than the general population, thanks in no small part to barriers to their participation in fitness. Trainers could act as agents of inclusion, argues Carrie Wade of the American Association of People with Disabilities, because one-on-one engagement allows for personalization and accommodations, if needed. When trainers become barriers to fitness accessibility instead, it is particularly ironic and disheartening.

It is doubly ironic and disheartening, according to Richardson and Wade, because training people with disabilities is not actually hard for a qualified fitness professional. (Both of them, it is worth pointing out, have disabilities, and Wade has consulted with gyms on accessibility issues and how to work with disabled clients.)

Larcom insists that in order to know how to adapt training to work with a person with a disability’s limitations, trainers “should have a foundational understanding of the underlying issue”—specialized knowledge of their specific disability, or at least type of disability. Put another way, she argues that people with disabilities should work with trainers specifically educated on their type of disability.

But this flies in the face of how many disability advocates and researchers think about the issue. People who have the same disability, Richardson points out, might have drastically different experiences with that disability, or purposes for working out. “Being an ‘issue expert’ on a particularly disability doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be equipped to work with a particular client,” Wade adds.

“I don’t say that to scare people,” Wade says. “Actually, the opposite.” She and other advocates and researchers I’ve spoken to argue that trainers don’t need specialized knowledge of a disability to work with disabled clients, just open minds. They need to listen to a person with disabilities, or their aide, caretaker, or guardian, explain their individualized accessibility needs or limitations and fitness goals without trying to fit them into a schema. Then, they need to adjust their standard training approach accordingly. This, Richardson points out, is already what they should be doing with all their clients. They may not know how to adapt a given training for a given disabled person at first. But Richardson says that some of the best trainers for people with disabilities are the best because they have tried several adaptations until they found what works.

The spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, a major fitness professional certifying body, told me they have faith that anyone they certify is “capable of developing, delivering, and modifying exercise programs for individuals of all abilities and health status.” Granted, it may arguably be easier for people with deeper backgrounds in kinesiology or physiology to quickly develop optimal adaptations. Trainers with degrees in these sciences, however, are unfortunately a minority in the industry, Richardson says.

However, trainers often hesitate to experiment with personalized adaptations, especially for clients with disabilities, says Jared Ciner, the founder of SPIRIT Club, a gym which works almost exclusively with disabled clients. Some trainers (falsely) see disabled clients as unique liability risks. Or, Richardson and Wade point out, they may just have biases about why people work out and be reticent to acknowledge or work with alternative goals or experiences. Some trainers may even believe that disabled people don’t belong in a gym, adds Wade, but instead should seek physical therapy so they can recover from their disability, and then enter a gym space and work in a normative fashion.

Many trainers who are, in theory, willing to work with disabled clients, Ciner explains, may struggle with discomfort or wariness due to a lack of experience with or knowledge about disability. This can lead to awkward moments or unintentionally inappropriate questions.

These issues all arguably stem from America’s culture of ableism. This culture typically portrays one type of body or mind—and therefore one set of workout goals or experiences—as correct or ideal. The structure of ableism also struggles to cope with people with disabilities who want to work out on their own terms rather than in line with or towards this ideal.

In Wade’s experience, ableism can even permeate inclusive spaces. She consulted for a gym in Los Angeles that aimed to be highly inclusive and found the trainers there weren’t steeped in “that hardcore fitness background” of many mainstream gyms. But it still “blew their minds” to hear that people with disabilities wouldn’t necessarily be coming to them with the goal of exercising like (or exercising to become like) able-bodied people.

Wade, who has cerebral palsy, explains that she exercises “to feel better in my body and feel stronger and learn more about what my body can do. If you put it conceptually like that, people are generally open to that idea. But when you add disability into it, there’s this, ‘oh, why wouldn’t you want to be more able-bodied? Why wouldn’t that be the point?’” That is ableism writ short: simple ideas about training personalization and subjectivity become difficult to grasp just because a body seems different.

There are plenty of programs for trainers who want to work with disabled clients. Many can help them gain basic familiarity with disability and thus comfort and confidence working with disabled clients. But according to Larcom, just over 2,000 trainers scattered (unevenly) across the US have certifications to work with “special populations,” which are not limited to disabled people; children are a “special population.” This is out of about 300,000 fitness trainers and instructors nationwide.

Larcom suggests many trainers do not pursue certifications because they can be expensive and may not seem marketable. The wrong certification course instructor could also implicitly reinforce elements of ableism. Or, Richarson and Wade note, a curriculum can give a trainer book learning, but fail to prepare them for the variability of disabled experiences in practice—for being open and adaptable.

The best step towards preparing trainers to work with clients with disabilities, Richardson suggests based on her research, might be for gyms nationwide to hire more trainers with disabilities. This, she says, seems to be the best source of training and comfort building for other trainers. Although this does pose the risk, she acknowledges, of a gym just isolating its disabled trainers, funneling all their disabled clients to them rather than integrating them into the wider gym space. It would also help, Wade argues, if certifying bodies required basic disability education for everyone, gyms focused on hiring trainers with disability exposure, or even just had regular awareness trainings.

But none of that is likely to happen—not just because there are not many disabled trainers out there, but because gyms are notoriously hostile to—or at least aggressively ignorant of, the needs of clients with disabilities in general. They have lagged behind other public spaces in adopting even bare bones, legally mandated physical accessibility features like ramps or reliably functional elevators.

Wade suspects most gyms skimp on accessibility and inclusion because they don’t think they need it. They both assume people with disabilities don’t want to use their services and recognize that they don’t have to cater to disabled populations to make bank. They may even fear catering to disabled people would run them a loss, due to the cost of specialized equipment and trainers for a small client base or to liability risks. And then there is a common assumption, Ciner adds, that people with disabilities can’t afford gyms. Many gyms, Richardson says, are so obsessed with selling the vision of a culturally perfect body that they might think hiring trainers, or welcoming clients, with disabilities could hurt their image.

Not all gyms adhere to this archetype, of course. Some, Lorcom notes, specialize in working with disabled populations. But, Richardson argues, these spaces are few in numbers compared to the disabled population. And they are ultimately segregationist, shunting disabled people into quiet corners.

So how can people with disabilities and their allies address these issues? Ciner thinks that he and others like him could appeal to their peers on a professional level. He believes many trainers would be swayed by the argument that championing an underserved population is meaningful and important, and that open-minded listening and adaptation actually makes training work more engaging and rewarding. But he also suspects trainers and gyms might need to see a business case. Many of them just don’t realize, he believes, how vast and untapped the market is for disability-friendly training and fitness spaces.

Yet those messages might take a while to sink in, moving past layers of acculturated ableism. Improving inclusion in training and gym spaces, Richardson suspects, might just come part-and-parcel with improving the visibility and inclusion of disabled people in wider society and, by so doing, chipping away at ingrained beliefs about ideal bodies, exercise goals, and the whole lot. “Unfortunately, this is a difficult battle,” Richardson says. “Changing the culture of the mainstream fitness industry,” much less society as a whole, “will not happen overnight.”