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People With Disabilities in Fitness

Fight ableism (and grow your business).

people with disabilities

If you think it feels great making the fit fitter, consider how rewarding it could be to share your knowledge of movement to empower and advocate to those who are frequently overlooked: people with disabilities.

It can also be a smart business strategy. Fifteen percent of the global population lives with some form of a disability, including 61 million adults in the United States (CDC 2022). That includes people with intellectual and physical disabilities as well as those with developmental disabilities such as autism, which is the world’s fastest growing developmental disability (Geslak 2022).

The idea of working with athletes with disabilities may be what sparks your interest. If not, there are many more nonathletes who can benefit from what you have to offer. Not only are people with disabilities much less active than their nondisabled counterparts, but adults living with disabilities are more likely to smoke and have obesity, heart disease and diabetes (CDC 2022; Rimmer 2005). One study found that 31.8% of adolescents with autism had obesity (Phillips et al. 2014). Why is this the case? The answer is both simple and complex: a lack of access.

Understanding Accessibility

The most fundamental requirement for a person with a disability to engage in physical activity is access. A 2020 survey conducted by the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD) and Degree deodorant found that 81% of people with disabilities say they do not feel welcome in fitness spaces (Wilroy et al. 2021).

Access is defined not only by the environment or the equipment. It also includes the images displayed throughout a facility and the language used in marketing and on the website. And, of course, the staff’s education plays a critical role in making any person feel welcome.

If you are going to truly make an impact for those in your community, you will need to stretch yourself. It’s worth the effort. The disability community stands ready, willing and able. Consider the following examples.

See also: Training People With Disabilities

Perception Versus Reality

When working with a person in a wheelchair, someone with Down syndrome, someone without a limb, or an autistic individual, it’s all too easy to unconsciously judge what we think that client cannot do. We should not be making any assumptions on any person’s goals, motivations or ability level.

In his book No Arms, No Legs, No Problem (Write With Grace 2014), Bob Lujano describes his love of pizza—and the stares he gets from others in the room when successfully eating it. If we want something bad enough, we will always find a way, no matter who we are. If you’re not familiar with Bob’s story, let me share it with you, because his life goes well beyond a slice of pie.

Bob has a master’s degree, won a bronze medal at the 2004 Paralympic Games, is one of the athletes featured in the Academy Award–nominated movie Murderball and is an international speaker empowering all persons to challenge themselves and live a healthy lifestyle.

You may be more familiar with Tae Bo® and its creator, Billy Blanks. Did you know he was born with an anomaly in his hip joints that impaired his movement? He also has a hidden disability: dyslexia. His martial arts instructors—and his siblings—thought he would never accomplish much. He has surely proved them wrong.

The same goes for Chris Nikic, the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman® triathlon. And Mikey Branigan, the first person with autism to break the 4-minute mile (at 3:57). And Amy Purdy, a three-time Paralympic medalist in snowboarding with no legs below the knees.

Bob, Billy, Chris, Mikey and Amy all adapted in their environment to succeed in an exercise program or sport while being driven by comments of their doubters. To achieve the success and accolades they have, they first needed to find the kind of trainers and coaches who would help them achieve their goals. Could that be you?

What the fitness industry is starting to recognize is that, whether a person has one leg or none, can speak or not, has big muscles or small, there is an incredible opportunity to share our passion and knowledge for exercise with those whose abilities are different than our average client’s. There is no question you will be challenged when working with a diverse population, but you will get tremendous payback from your well-earned results. As if that isn’t enough, it will also make you a better trainer (and club) for all your clients.

Words and Actions Matter for People With Disabilities

Our world is changing. More people are being understood and accepted for who they are. However, there is still some heavy lifting that needs to be done in the fitness industry.

Our watches, apps and public health messages most often encourage getting physical activity by increasing our steps (Rimmer 2005). What about the people who have lower limb paralysis, arthritis or extreme obesity? Or the person with autism, who finds watching the rotation of the treadmill to be more engaging than attempting to walk on it? Increasing steps is not always a realistic option for everybody. The industry must bring inclusive physical activities to this community while educating public health officials on the alternatives for those with disabilities.

A term moving into the fitness industry that you may not be familiar with is ableism. Ableism is “a network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical and therefore essential and fully human. Disability is cast as a diminished state of being human. Individuals are seen as less worthy if they do not conform to strict corporeal standards and values set by an institution” (Richardson, Smith & Papathomas 2017).

In the exercise industry, ableism runs rampant.

Men in tank tops with bulging muscles and women in sports bras with toned physiques are showcased as pictures of inspirational and aspirational health. This is not what everyone strives for and, for many, it is an unrealistic goal. Some people just want to reduce their high blood pressure, improve their mental health and be able to move without pain so they can play with their kids or grandkids.

That being said, you can counter the ableism trend by including photos of persons with disabilities in your marketing and other materials you create or display, which can also encourage participation in fitness clubs and organizations. Target includes models with Down syndrome in their marketing and offers wheelchair and adaptive costumes for Halloween. Mattel released an inclusive and diverse line of American Girl dolls with disability representation. These positive efforts have been widely promoted—and well received by their customer base.

Ableism is evident not only in the images we see but also in the language we use. If we are going to consider working with this community, we need to be educated on what to say. For example, while many agree that using person-first language is best, many in the autism community take offense at this and, for example, prefer to identify as autistic (Perry 2022; AUCD 2011).

Even those working with people with disabilities are often not aware that they are using ableist language that people take exception to. This can be an uncomfortable topic to discuss, but to change this narrative in our industry, it’s important for us to pursue insight from the disability community.

Those with disabilities can be clients for life, or they will be clients for about an hour. If you are not educated or prepared, it will quickly reveal itself to them or their caregivers.

See also: Special Programs for Special People

New Possibilities for People with Disabilities

In the past 20 years, there has been some positive momentum of fitness professionals recognizing and servicing the disability community. Some of this began with people who have an exercise accreditation and also were caregivers—for example of an autistic individual.

For instance, Sana Ghawas, from Bahrain, is an ACSM-certified personal trainer and mom of a child who identifies as being on the autism spectrum. Ghawas first earned her Autism Exercise Specialist Certificate to help her son be more physically active, which has evolved into her desire to help more children and adults in Bahrain. In a region of the world where a specialized fitness center for individuals with autism did not exist, Ghawas started Wonder Fitness. Sana and her team train an average of 35 clients a week, a majority of whom are diagnosed with autism, and sessions continue to grow.

Imagine how many individuals and caregivers are looking for exercise in your community! It’s time that the fitness industry prepares more professionals to work with those with disabilities while raising the bar for standards, certificates and certifications, and expectations. Sometimes opportunity doesn’t knock—you’ve got to open the door. The fitness industry has both an opportunity and responsibility to make everybody feel welcome so they can build a healthy and active lifestyle.

Get Credentialed!

The truth is most fitness professionals have not been certified to work with people with disabilities. The good news is that this is changing! The American College of Sports Medicine continues to lead the way for promoting fitness for those with disabilities. In the 2022 release of ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription (11th ed.), updates were made regarding cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease, intellectual disability and Down syndrome. Additionally, a new chapter was added, “Brain Health and Brain-Related Disorders,” which includes guidelines on exercise testing and prescription for autism spectrum disorder. The ACSM also provides specific certifications, as does the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

ACSM/NCHPAD Certified Inclusive Fitness Trainer

In collaboration with the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD), the American College of Sports Medicine has developed a specialty certification for fitness professionals to empower those who are challenged by physical, sensory or cognitive disabilities. As an ACSM/NCHPAD Certified Inclusive Fitness Trainer (CIFT), you can give clients the knowledge and support to lead a healthy and comfortable lifestyle.

ACSM/Exercise Connection Autism Exercise Specialist Certificate

Developed in partnership with Exercise Connection, the Autism Exercise Specialist Certificate is available to exercise professionals, physical education or adapted physical education teachers, physical therapists, recreational therapists, and special education professionals. Successfully completing this certificate will allow you to understand the needs and strategies used with autism when implementing an individual or group exercise program in a gym, home or classroom setting.

NSCA-Certified Special Population Specialist

NSCA Certified Special Population Specialists (CSPS) are fitness professionals who, using an individualized approach, assess, motivate, educate and train special-population clients of all ages regarding their health and fitness needs—preventively, and in collaboration with healthcare professionals.


AUCD (Association of University Centers on Disabilities). 2011. Portrayal of people with disabilities. Accessed Nov. 15, 2022: htpp://aucd.org/template/page.cfm?id=605. CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 2022. Disability impacts all of us. Accessed Nov. 15, 2022: cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/infographic-disability-impacts-all.html. Geslak, D. 2022. The power of exercise for the autism community. IDEA Fitness Journal, 19 (3), 22–25. Perry, R. 2022. Person-first vs. identity-first language. AccessATE. Accessed Nov. 15, 2022: accessate.net/features/2519/person-first-vs-identity-first-language. Phillips, K.L., et al. 2014. Prevalence and impact of unhealthy weight in a national sample of US adolescents with autism and other learning and behavioral disabilities. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 18 (8), 1964–75. Richardson, E.V., Smith, B., & Papathomas, A. 2017. Disability and the gym: Experiences, barriers and facilitators of gym use for individuals with physical disabilities. Disability and Rehabilitation, 39 (19), 1950–57. Rimmer, J.H. 2005. The conspicuous absence of people with disabilities in public fitness and recreation facilities: Lack of interest or lack of access? American Journal of Health Promotion, 19, 327–29. Wilroy, J., et al. 2021. Fitness Industry and Disability Access and Acceptance Survey Report. Birmingham, AL: Lakeshore Foundation and National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability.

David Geslak

David Geslak is a published author, writes autism and exercise research articles, and has a TV show, “Coach Dave,” on the Autism Channel. In collaboration with the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD), he created an autism exercise video series that now has more than 500,000 views. He graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in health promotion and is a certified exercise physiologist from the American College of Sports Medicine and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist from the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

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