At one point during my schooling, I had a vision of opening a fitness facility specifically aimed for people with special needs and disabilities. When I actually sat down and did the research, figured out the financial needs of starting such a business…needless to say, I put that on the back burner. Over the years, I’ve trained with and taught my fair share of people with disabilities and those with medical diagnoses. I’ve always thought though, for every person with a disability that I’ve worked with, there’s about thirty or so ‘normal-functioning’ individuals as well. Why is there such a gap here? Shouldn’t it be about even? These are the individuals that should be filling the gym’s and fitness centers, right? Well, if only things were that simple and black and white. Let’s explore the ins and outs of working with this population and the hurdles included with it.
Let’s split this conversation into two categories: the perspective of the person with the disability and the reality from the professional’s point of view.
Despite the fact that the individuals we’re talking about are disabled, there is still a lot of hurdles to potentially go through just to be able to exercise. No matter their limitations, people with special needs greatly benefit from physical training or any form of exercise. Why is this so difficult is because if you’re dealing with someone who has a physical disability, utilizing some equipment may be troublesome and hinder the person’s performance. Also, you run the risk of that person injuring themselves more. It may be more than just a physical issue too. They could also be having behavioral/mental health problems that make it difficult to focus, concentrate or behave in an acceptable manner. Whatever the case is, these issues limit the individual on what they’re able to tolerate and for how long. Another reason is that some parents don’t encourage their child with special needs to exercise. These parents may mean well but end up treating the child as if they’re broken and vulnerable and just want to protect them. Fear of getting hurt is definitely something to be concerned about but exercise, if done right, can be extremely effective and beneficial to the special needs individual to be more productive in their lives.
From a professional standpoint, if the trainer doesn’t have advanced training in working with physically or developmentally delayed individuals, that will present somewhat of a challenge for the trainer or therapist assigned to the person in question. The better prepared you are at knowing about different scenarios that might play out during sessions and the appropriate steps to take when interacting with the client so that the sessions are productive as well as fun. Trainers as well as therapists need to keep in mind that people with disabilities are just that…people. They just need to be given the opportunity to learn and if that means you have to take a little more time than the average bear, that’s what need done. Remember, it’s not about you, this is all about assisting them in helping them gain confidence in themselves with trying something new.
What helps us trainers and therapists achieve this is partly in assistive technology that is readily available to fitness facilities and clinics. Visual physical activity schedules help clients anticipate what is coming next so that it’s not a surprise or shock. Again, these implementing schedules like this into the person’s training sessions may make things go more smoothly when transitioning from one activity to another. If you are working with someone who doesn’t like loud noises, noise-cancelling headphones are an option to help minimize loud sounds for those that may be hyper-sensitive to sound such as those affected with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. For those with more physical limitations such as cerebral palsy, there are things such as adaptive equipment available. There are things ranging from communicative technology to mobility technology to help the individual get from one place to another or to vocalize their needs and wants through devices like a DynaVox communication system which allows the user to type words or use symbols to convey what they want to say.
Trainers are extremely good at motivating their clients and people with special needs need that constant reassurance at times that they are doing a good job or words of encouragement. However, on the flip-side is having those tough conversations at times. For things such as acting out during a session or even something as simple as having to redirect a client back to the task at hand. Trainers can also be great weapons of choice in the clients arsenal they may need to call upon when they’re struggling at the gym with workouts or need that extra shot of inspiration. For trainers who may feel they aren’t that qualified to work with people with special needs, there are always training courses and CEU’s that specifically teach trainers how to coach people with special needs and physical disabilities. A quick Google search for programs in your area will give you some options to help you on your search!
Lastly, there are specially designed fitness programs and facilities that do cater to physically and mentally disabled patrons. One such facility called Special Strong, located in various locations in Texas, is a fitness center that works with the physically and mentally disabled. Founded by Dan Stein, who at 21 had been diagnosed with a learning disability, mood disorder and an autoimmune disease had successfully used exercise to overcome his illnesses and challenges. In 2016, Dan and his wife, Trinity had started one of the only fitness facilities in the country devoted to working with people who have physical and mental handicaps. They specialize in adaptive and inclusive training methods to help clients gain the most benefits from their trainings sessions that allow them continued use of their bodies and improve upon them daily. If you would like to learn more about Special Strong, log onto www.specialstrong.com.
Trainers can be the bridge that fills the gap between what’s not possible and what is for people with special needs. Personal trainers just need to approach clients with open arms, practice patience, humility and compassion when interacting with these individuals. Together we can make this invisible population one that creates visibility within itself and show the world they are capable of the challenges they are faced with.
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John J. Schessler, Jr. is a Pittsburgh-based NASM Personal Trainer, Wellness Coach and host of the podcast, “ManAlive!”, available on Apple Podcasts. He is also a certified Sports injury Specialist, Orthopedics Exercise Specialist, Men’s Life Coach and writer. For general inquiries, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.