Do you want to serve all members of your community, including those with disabilities, but you’re not sure where to start? Or maybe you currently offer specialized services and want to promote them to more people? If you are waiting for the “perfect” opportunity to become more inclusive and accessible, it may surprise you to discover that much of what you already offer could be of great benefit to individuals living with a chronic condition or physical limitation. While there are certain environmental aspects to consider (see “Facility Accessibility Highlights” on page 90), serving this community can be as simple as approaching your existing programming from a different angle and strategically promoting your schedule.
Inclusive group fitness classes are held in user-friendly environments and offer movement adaptations and intensity options for individuals with varying levels of ability. You may think that in order to provide such classes you have to start from scratch. The truth is, your existing schedule is a great place to start. Chances are you already offer classes designed for beginners. Broaden your concept of who a beginner is. Thoroughly research the population you have in mind, and weave your insights into a targeted class offering. Maximize the potential for diversity by approaching the schedule with a who, what, how and when mentality.
Start by defining who the class is best suited for. Some examples are: new to yoga, older adults, people with limited mobility, people referred by physical therapists and those living with chronic pain. By taking this step, you attract participants with specific goals and needs. You also help people form appropriate expectations of the class. Not only is this a good starting point for members; it also gives facility staff an opportunity to promote the program effectively.
Providing a description or title that defines what the class will address is important as well. Keep in mind that a gentle yoga class can mean different things to different people. The class name states the focus and reinforces who the offering is most suitable for. Here are some examples: “Back Care Yoga,” “Yoga for Increased Range of Motion,” “Restorative Yoga,” “Yoga for Improved Coordination [or Gait, Balance, etc.].”
Relay to members how the class will be conducted. This gives them an idea of what they can expect and what is expected of them. The title “Mat Yoga” indicates that the class will take place on the floor; therefore, the ability to get up and down from the floor is important. On the other hand, “Seated Yoga” indicates that the entire class is done seated and therefore does not require the ability to get up and down from the floor. Thus, this option is more inviting to someone who uses a wheelchair or struggles with balance or endurance.
Be sure to state the class requirements in the description. For example, if you want to offer an adaptive Pilates reformer class, you might include the phrase “strong seated balance skills required.” A member interested in an adaptive aquatics class may benefit from reading “no swimming skills required, but must be able to move independently.” This type of information can be helpful and encouraging to someone who might otherwise hesitate to participate.
Although it is important to clearly communicate the goals of a class in a title and class description, don’t underestimate the desire of many to “be like everybody else,” to feel challenged and to have a sense of accomplishment. Therefore, while the idea of an “Arthritis Boot Camp” may not appeal to some, for others it’s exactly what the doctor ordered.
Give careful consideration to when your class will be most accessible. An ideal time frame for individuals who struggle with fatigue, strength or mobility issues is typically between 10:00 am and 1:00 pm. Classes held earlier or later may be difficult to attend for those challenged by daily living activities. Keep in mind that many of your members may
- rely on others for transportation;
- have difficulty driving in traffic or with minimal sunlight; and/or
- struggle with dressing/grooming responsibilities and require assistance.
Your well-designed sessions are useless without qualified instructors to lead them. In addition to having a baseline fitness certification, instructors who teach specialty classes should ideally have specialized training and education. However, “head” knowledge and training make up only half of the equation. Also needed are personality, flexibility, a willingness to learn from students and practical experience working with participants who require modifications. Share the following teaching tips, as well as “Learning Language” sidebar below, with your staff to help them approach their classes with a professional and winning attitude.
Teach a Multi-Intensity Format. Offer options based on a building format rather than a levels system. Regardless of a person’s ability, human nature drives all of us to strive for the highest level of exertion, even if it is not a good choice for us at that moment. With this in mind, execute movements from different perspectives. For example, move from a seated position or while holding onto a balance stick, chair or wall. Present choices as building blocks. Teach option A, then options B and C, and encourage people to stay at whatever block works best for them, without feeling pressure to move on. It’s wonderful to educate participants about how to increase and decrease intensity, but sometimes it’s best to give options without the stigma of what is harder or easier.
Welcome All Participants. Allow students to do as much as they can, even if it’s just moving from side to side. As long as they are happy, safe and moving, nothing else matters. Focus on what they can do rather than on what they can’t.
Communicate in Versatile Ways. We all learn in different ways; therefore, offer different teaching styles. Be creative with your instructions and descriptions, and have fun. People who have visual limitations, for example, will appreciate extra verbal, visual and kinesthetic reinforcement.
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat. Learning takes practice, particularly for those who struggle with cognitive challenges and/or movement execution. Some participants will need extra time.
Use Music That Stimulates Creativity. Songs with few or no lyrics minimize competition with your voice. Find music that complements what you are trying to accomplish. For example, a bad choice would be fast-tempo music during relaxation. Play with tempo and rhythm to support individuals who may need to move slowly or at a difference pace than others (i.e. half tempo, double time).
Have Props Readily Available. Offer participants props or equipment that will help with stamina, balance and coordination issues. Examples include chairs, stretching straps and, of course, the wall!
Focus on the Joy of Movement. En-courage participants to give themselves permission simply to move, regardless of what that looks like or what they think it should look like. What really matters is that they move.
Plan Activities and Class Formats That Highlight Meaningful Skills. People who are dealing with limited function or loss of function not only need but value classes that address functional skills of daily living. Consider offering classes that focus on walking skills, coordination, stress reduction, fall prevention or balance.
Be Flexible. A good instructor knows that execution is all about perspective and attitude. Although not everything may go according to plan, all that matters is that you provide safe and effective instruction. Give yourself and your students time to adjust, grow and do what feels right at the moment.
Stay Abreast of Current Industry Research, Trends and Education. My motto is “The day you think you know it all is the day you stop learning.” Don’t expect yourself to be a walking encyclopedia, but stay current and work within your scope of practice. It’s okay to say, “I just don’t know, but I can try and find out.” Your students will appreciate the effort and value your honesty.
Last but not least: If you build it, will they come? Yes, but you have to let them know about it! Promote your classes and your experienced, enthusiastic instructors in centers and venues frequented by people who need the services you are providing (senior centers, hospitals, physical therapy centers, physician’s offices, etc.). Partner with organizations that serve your target populations (Arthritis Foundation, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, American Stroke Association). These allies will more often than not be more than willing to help you get the word out. An excellent way to build relationships is to offer discounted rates and other specials.
Remember to cross-promote your programming. For example, mothers with young children in a “Parent and Me” class may also be drawn to a back care class. Whenever possible, take advantage of local media. Newspapers are always looking for a feel-good interest story. Who doesn’t want to read about a 90-year-old having fun in a kickboxing class? The fact that it’s in a warm pool with 15 other 90-year-olds is beside the point!
By making a commitment to offering inclusive group fitness options, you open your facility doors wider, benefiting the entire community. With a little creativity and attention to detail, the program schedule can become diverse and resourceful for a wide array of abilities, and people will be able to find and make choices to meet their needs.