Inspire the World to Fitness
IDEA member Debra Orringer helps clients adapt exercise to their special needs and reconnect with life.
IDEA member Debra Orringer spent most of her life overweight. She once led an “extremely sedentary” lifestyle and tried “every fad diet and weight loss regime ever invented.” During the summer of 1993, she took her last look at a mirror image that no longer seemed true to her. “I was not at all impressed with what I saw,” she says. “At that very second, I realized I was not going to put up with my weight problem anymore.”
It was from this seed that Orringer’s motivation started to grow. As she learned how to live a healthy lifestyle through exercise and proper nutrition, she knew she had been bitten hard by the wellness bug. She decided one day to follow up on a sign in her gym that read, “So, you want to teach aerobics?” Years later, Orringer’s fitness professional resumé was heavy with certifications and punctuated with a master of science degree in sport sciences. Through the course of her studies, she had taken a class called “Exercise Therapy and Adapted Physical Education.” One of the projects involved volunteering with kids who had disabilities. “I fell in love with this type of exercise and with helping those with disabilities,” Orringer says. “In my eyes, everyone can exercise.”
In addition to being passionate about health and adapted physical fitness, Orringer had always wanted to work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She moved from New York to Florida, hoping to improve her chances of getting hired at NASA. Her chances did improve, and, due to her hard work and persistence, she landed an internship. Eventually she was hired in the physiology lab as a “fitness professional.” She was later promoted to a supervisor position. During that period, Orringer worked closely with the chief medical officer of the Kennedy Space Center to develop a program for persons with disabilities. The Adapted Physical Activity (APA) Works Program opened its doors to anyone who saw exercise as a blockade instead of a benefit.
“The main idea was to get those people who had been unable to utilize the current resources into a program they were comfortable with and that would challenge them,” Orringer says. “We also wanted to do away with any barriers that might keep them from using the program. There are so many people here who have some type of disability—vision impairment, obesity, spinal issues or degenerative diseases. There are no barriers. Everyone can participate. They need to take the first step of course, but there is no excuse. We are here for them at any time. The program is free, and we have trainers and private space within the current fitness center, so all the needed resources are here (medical, emergency, space and equipment), as well as a properly trained staff.”
Orringer sees many clients, all with a wide range of disabilities. She shares her experience with her first APA client, Russ Dyer. “In 1998, Russ crashed his car and broke his left leg in three places, split his sternum and broke all his ribs. Both lungs collapsed, and his left arm was pulled loose from the shoulder, which was broken along with his collarbone. He also had to have a tracheotomy. But the most damage was hitting his head against the wall. Even with a helmet, the impact put him in a coma for 8 days. He spent 3 months in a hospital and the next year relearning how to walk and speak. It is very humbling to work with someone whose main goal is to be able to run again.”
Dyer’s simple wish is one reason Orringer enjoys her job as much as she does. “I love the fact that I can work with people whose goals are so straightforward and uncomplicated,” she says. “Russ wanted to run; how many of us take that for granted every day? Another client who was visually impaired and very hunched over now has the confidence to stand tall. He even moved out of his comfort zone into a better job. One client with arthrogryposis (a muscle disorder that causes multiple joint contractures) has had more than 30 operations on her hands alone and is constantly getting injured. The last time she was injured and on crutches she told me how much stronger she felt and how much easier it was to use the crutches because of all the work we’ve done.”
Orringer’s advice to other fitness professionals who are interested in adaptive physical fitness is to stay dedicated and be creative. “Think about the specific goal and break it down into monthly, weekly and daily, step-by-step goals,” she says. “It’s okay to modify the equipment or use none at all. Sometimes using our own body weight is challenging enough. If someone can’t stand, then do the exercises seated—anything from ball tosses to resistance equipment. There is no law that says a sport has to be done in a certain time frame. Working with special needs is not about limitations; it’s about adapting and succeeding. Everyone can exercise, and it is up to us to help them figure out how.”