As group fitness instructors and personal trainers, we want everyone to feel welcome when they walk or roll through our door. Unfortunately, people with disabilities often face additional barriers when trying to participate in group fitness classes. It is our job as fitness professionals to make sure that everyone that wants to participate can, regardless of their ability.
Here are some frequently asked questions, thoughts, and concerns:
“I don’t bother with inclusion because I don’t have any students with a disability.”
But how do you know?
Many people have hidden (invisible) disabilities and you never know when a new student with a disability will want to join your class.
“Won’t taking these steps to provide more inclusive and accessible fitness disrupt my class and interfere with other students’ experiences?”
It’s not about making the class different or “special” for a few individuals. Inclusion is about making the class better for everyone. Who wouldn’t want that!?
“I don’t have the time/money/experience to make my class inclusive.”
Luckily, there are many quick and easy ways to make your group fitness class more inclusive and they require minimal (or no) time, money, or experience.
Below you’ll find my top five tips for creating a more inclusive group fitness class. These tips are fast, easy, and only require a little planning and creativity.
Whether you’re teaching your first class or are a seasoned instructor, these tips can be put to use immediately!
No.1 Provide the Space to Succeed
Every fitness instructor knows that there’s no greater feeling than teaching to a packed room, right? Unfortunately, crowded classes can pose a number of problems for individuals with disabilities.
Assess Your Teaching Space
Use these four questions to determine whether or not your room provides enough space for everyone:
1. Is there enough room to move safely?
Everyone likes to have a little extra room to move, but individuals with certain conditions require even more space, especially if using an assistive device such as a wheelchair or walker. Making sure that there’s enough room for everyone to move safely is your first step towards creating an inclusive environment for all participants.
2. Can everyone see you?
It’s important that each and every participant in the class is able to see you. Aside from the obvious benefits of easier access to visual cues, individuals with hearing impairment may rely on visual cues and reading your lips and individuals with limited vision may need to be situated closer to the front or with a clear sight line of the instructor.
3. Is there enough room to keep assistive devices nearby?
Ensuring that there’s enough room to move is just the first step in providing a more inclusive fitness environment. A participant may choose to store their assistive device during class, but it should be easily accessible and readily available if needed. This means that there must also be room to keep the assistive device close at hand.
4. Can the class accommodate an extra person if an individual requires an assistant to participate?
In allowing enough room in the class to accommodate an assistant you are also ensuring that everyone has enough room to move safely and freely. This will help all your students feel more comfortable and at ease while working with you.
Further Thoughts on Finding More Space
While it’s not always possible to teach in a larger room or reduce your class size, there are other options to quickly and easily create more space. For example:
- Change the orientation of the room so students can see better. If you typically teach at the front of a long, narrow room, students in the very back may not be able to see. Try teaching from the long side of the room, which gives everyone a better view.
- Make sure that you’re using your space as efficiently as possible. Students frequently bring gym bags, coats, boots, etc. into the room and place them on the floor, taking up valuable space. Encourage your students to leave their belongings in lockers. If you don’t have lockers, consider adding some hooks or cubbies in an area outside the room to hang coats and store personal items.
No. 2 Make Equipment Easily Accessible
Individuals with disabilities can’t participate if they can’t safely and easily access and use the necessary equipment (e.g. dumbbells, stability balls).
Here are three quick questions to determine whether or not your storage situation is accessible:
1. Is your equipment stored in a narrow closet or equipment room?
When equipment is stored in narrow and small spaces it becomes exceedingly difficult for individuals that use a wheelchair or assistive device because they don’t have enough room to maneuver.
2. Is your equipment stored on high shelves?
Reaching overhead can be difficult for individuals with certain orthopedic and neuromuscular disorders, as well as those with balance issues. High shelves also pose a problem for those that use a wheelchair or are of short stature as they can’t reach the equipment.
3. Is your equipment stacked, piled high, or disorganized?
Equipment that’s in disarray is a tripping hazard for those that are balance-challenged or visually impaired, as well as a stability issue for wheelchair users.
No. 3 Use 3-Part Cues
Each student processes information and learns slightly differently, so it is good practice to use a combination of visual, verbal, and tactile (kinesthetic) cues. Unfortunately, many instructors don’t consistently cue in this manner. Whether it be preference or habit, I have observed most group fitness instructors relying on 1 or 2 of these cueing methods. By using all three cueing styles, not only do you improve the overall quality of your class, but you also make it more inclusive.
Here’s a quick outline for each of the different cueing styles:
Who does this cueing style benefit?
Visual cues are particularly useful to individuals with hearing impairments as well as those with speech and learning disabilities that make it difficult to process auditory information.
How to incorporate visual cues into your teaching:
- Use hand cues to indicate the direction, counts, and number of reps.
- Demonstrate with strong body language and clean, deliberate movements.
- Include written signs when possible. For example, in a circuit training class, you could write out the name of the exercise and post it at the station. Better yet, include a picture of the exercise for individuals that may have difficulty processing written language.
- Ensure clear sight lines so that everyone can see you. Before class, always do a check and encourage participants to move to a different part of the room if needed.
Hold up 2 fingers and point to the windows, then take 2 big, clean steps towards the windows.
Who does this cueing style benefit?
Verbal cues are helpful to individuals with visual impairments as well as those with disabilities that make it difficult to process visual information.
How to incorporate verbal cues into your teaching:
- Provide direction-oriented instructions, such as left, right, forward, or back. You can also use room landmarks (such as “towards the windows” or “towards the mirror”) for students that have difficulty with directional language.
- Say the number of reps or counts, like “we will do 10 squats beginning in 4…3…2…1…)
- Test your microphone for good quality and volume, as well as verify that all participants can clearly hear you.
Say “take 2 steps towards the windows”.
Who does this cueing style benefit?
Tactile cueing is typically most useful to individuals with multi-sensory impairment and those with disabilities that make it difficult to process auditory and visual information.
Important notes about tactile cueing:
In its purest form, tactile cueing involves touching the body part(s) involved in the exercise and/or assisting movement of the body through the range of motion. This is the toughest to use in a group fitness setting for two reasons:
- It’s not practical to use when you have a number of students and can’t always provide individual instruction.
- Hands-on feedback is not always welcome. Many people do not feel comfortable being touched and some individuals with sensory impairments also have phobias.
How to incorporate tactile cues into your teaching:
- Always gain consent before physically touching an individual. Begin by explaining what you are going to do and why you are doing it. Remember: If an individual is participating with an assistant or interpreter, remember to speak directly to the individual when providing instruction and asking consent.
- If physical touch is not an option for giving your student feedback, a good alternative is to provide a verbal description of how they should feel when performing the movement. Describe sensations, muscles working, and other physiological responses such as increased breathing rate.
Hands-On Feedback – Lightly touch the front knee of a student doing a lunge if the forward knee is tracking over the front foot.
Hands-Off Feedback – Say “as you increase the resistance on the bike, you will feel your heart rate increasing and your breathing getting faster.”
No. 4 Have a Chair Available
We want to encourage all our students to stay in the class and not have to leave if all they need is a little break. One of the easiest and quickest modifications that you can make is ensuring that there is always a chair available in your group fitness room for participants to sit and rest. Of course, the chair can also offer support and balance for standing exercises!
Having a chair readily available allows the student a place to discreetly rest when needed and with minimal adaptation, the student can even continue to participate from the chair. Participants with the following conditions are more apt to use a chair when it’s provided:
- Fatigue caused by conditions such as Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis, COPD
- Joint pain from conditions such as fibromyalgia, arthritis, and obesity
- Dizziness from vertigo or anxiety
- Balance issues from conditions like vertigo, Parkinson’s, and Multiple Sclerosis
- Beginners that may need to keep the intensity lower and may require a rest
Finding the perfect support chair is easy if you know what you’re looking for! The best chair has:
- A sturdy, straight back,
- Light padding (ideally),
- Even, slip-free legs,
- No arms to accommodate larger individuals,
- And (most importantly) no wheels!
It’s important that everyone understands there is no shame in needing a moment of rest! Having to leave or ask for a place to sit (or worse– having to sit on the floor) is embarrassing and disruptive. Often, all someone needs is a quick break and sitting for a moment will do the trick.
No. 5 Adjust the Light and Sound
Music and lighting are often an integral part of a group fitness class and can provide emotional cues for the tone and energy of the activity. It is important to be conscientious that while pounding music and strobing lights can bring energy to the class, it can also be problematic for individuals with sensory issues.
- Select the appropriate level of lighting and music for the class based upon:
- Format: ex. yoga, boot camp, indoor cycling.
- Tone: ex. high energy/intensity vs. restorative/lower intensity.
- Level: ex. beginner, intermediate, advanced.
- Be open to modifying the lighting intensity and/or sound volume when requested.
- If it is not possible to adjust the lighting and/or sound to meet an individual’s needs, suggest alternatives such as:
- Wearing tinted glasses
- Using earplugs or earmuffs
With a little planning, it’s easy to make your classes more inclusive and accessible. Be flexible, get creative, and (most importantly) create a fun environment for everyone!
Have you tried one of these tips? Share your experience in the comments below!