Rashmi Becker Founder, Step Change Studios PHOTO CREDIT - Dani Campion

How to Make Physical Activity Easier for the Visually Impaired

In the UK, there are almost 2 million people living with sight loss and every day 250 people begin to lose their sight. RNIB research shows that people with sight loss are reported to have several associated conditions, including depression, anxiety and diabetes. It is accepted that physical activity can help address these symptoms but, according to Activity Alliance, disabled people are twice as likely to be inactive compared with non-disabled people. In part, this may be down to the fact that many fitness professionals don’t feel confident instructing visually impaired people. In fact, research by Step Change Studios and Metro Blind Sport showed that just 12.5% of fitpros felt ‘very confident’ teaching someone with sight loss.

We spoke to Rashmi Becker MBE, founder of Step Change Studios, about:

  • How to break down barriers faced by fitpros wanting to work with visually impaired clients
  • How fitpros can quickly build their confidence through upskilling
  • Ways to make classes inviting and safe for visually impaired people

People with sight loss have, historically, not been well catered for in the fitness industry. Why is this?

The fitness industry has been slow to address the lack of diversity in both workforce and customer-base, especially when it comes to disability and people with sight loss.

Our research with fitpros shows that 73% of respondents would rate the fitness sector as ‘poor’ in terms of access and inclusion of people with sight loss. There are a number of reasons for this: 62% of people tell us they lack confidence in teaching people with sight loss; 86% think accessibility of the fitness venue/equipment is an issue; 85% think there is a lack of public information about accessible activities and 80% think the competence of fitness professionals can be a barrier to inclusion.

What are the biggest barriers for including those with sight loss in classes or in gym environments?

There can be psychological barriers for fitpros, both in what they think about themselves and others.  78% of fitpros think people with sight loss will be concerned over their ability to take part. At the same time, over half of fitpros think the response from other people in the gym or class may put off people with sight loss.

Perception can be a strong influence on participants too. In one focus group I held with South Asian women with sight loss, the group spoke of being self-conscious about their clothing and how they looked to others; but the group also highlighted poor treatment and awkwardness on the part of fitpros.

We ran a series of free workshops to provide practical skills and advice to fitpros and a common concern they have is ‘saying the wrong thing’ which adds to their discomfort.

What sort of training do fitness professionals need to instruct someone with sight loss?

The biggest concern for 77% of fitpros in supporting people with sight loss was a lack of specialist training. This is concerning as they should have been instructed how to adapt their sessions as part of their initial required training. No two customers are the same and people have different abilities and fitness levels. As fitpros we learn to adapt our sessions and work out what approach works best for different people as we get to know them better.

Working with people with sight loss requires the same need to adapt and apply knowledge and skills. There are specific skills and approaches fitpros can learn that will help them to be more effective. As well as our free workshops, we have a set of practical tips to support fitpros.  Combining these with existing professional knowledge will provide a more inclusive experience for all participants.

What can fitness professionals do to make their classes more inviting to those with sight loss?

There are number of ways that fitpros can make their classes inviting and inclusive including:

1.      Advanced Communication –Contacting people in advance of the session to find out about them and to discuss the format of the class, the layout of the studio, changing room, lockers etc. This will help people know what to expect and will help you plan

2.      Orientating the participant to the space – a supported walk around the area will help them gain familiarity and confidence

3.      Not being afraid to say the ‘wrong thing’ – everyday language, such as ‘see you next week’ is fine; it won’t cause offence; but people will detect your discomfort. If you’re not sure – ask what terminology people prefer

4.      Welcoming someone who is supporting the participant – including a carer or friend in your session will help build confidence for both you and the participant

5.      Managing the music – making sure the volume is the right level, so your voice can be clearly heard by everyone

6.      Use visual language – be more descriptive when giving instructions.  For example, don’t just say ‘raise your arms’ say ‘raise your arms out to the side and up to shoulder height’.

7.      Use non-verbal language – for example using clapping to help people keep in time and change the tempo or mood in your music to direct a change in movement

8.      Practice – by yourself and with others to see if they can follow your instruction while not being able to see you. Record yourself and listen back – are your audio instructions clear without seeing your demonstration?

If a fitness professional wanted to upskill quickly to train those with vision impairments, what advice do you have? What resources can they turn to?

Our Tip Sheet is a good start point and British Blind Sport has useful resources on their website with guidance on coaching people with sight loss. We have also run webinar workshops with students with sight loss that give fitpros the chance to ask questions.

Plan and practise! Learn and note what approaches work well and take on board all the feedback you can to help shape your sessions and build your skillset. Communicate with new customers so that you can understand their experience of sight loss, their motivation for taking part and what they would find helpful in terms of support. Be proactive in reaching out to people with sight loss and aspire to ensure your classes are diverse and inclusive.

For more information, go to https://www.stepchangestudios.com/

Posted in Interviews, Most Popular Interviews, Personal Trainers.