How can the fitness industry be made more inclusive for people with disabilities? Strong Women spoke to a personal trainer on a mission to help the deaf community to overcome barriers to exercise classes.
There’s no doubt that exercise plays an incredibly important role in our health and wellbeing. It’s hard to ignore the fact, however, that many physical barriers (as well as social and economic) to fitness exist – especially for people living with disabilities.
In 2016, a scientific review found that “while there is potential for the gym to be used as a place to promote health, more must be done to foster an inclusive atmosphere in this space.”
Indeed, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) has called for a better culture of inclusion in the fitness industry, saying in a statement: “As an industry, we want people to encourage each other to be more active. Not just people who are already healthy, but all people – the young, old, healthy, chronically ill, and those with and without disabilities.”
So, how do we go about making these spaces more accessible to all? As with so many fights for equality, inclusion often begins at a grassroots level, with individuals making a huge difference for marginalised communities.
Amy Hill, a personal trainer from Glasgow, started running fitness classes exclusively for deaf people after training her parents (who are both deaf). Her classes use a specialised lighting system to signal when to start circuits and when to stop, and she communicates in sign language throughout.
This year, Hill was awarded Fitness Classes of The Year in the Scotland Prestige Awards. She also shares BSL workout tutorials on her Instagram and continues to raise awareness for the deaf community and the barriers they face, particularly when it comes to exercise.
“I was training my dad one day in a nightclub space I was renting, and I was just messing around at the DJ box with the lighting system,” she tells Stylist. “My dad was watching me do it and I suddenly wondered what would happen if I did a green light for ‘go’ and a red light for when he needed to rest from our circuits. He’d be able to follow along, even if I wasn’t in his eye line.”
Hill filmed their session and posted the video online, and found herself inundated with requests for her to start full fitness classes for deaf people.
She began leading bespoke circuit sessions for deaf people and, in January 2020, moved into her own studio space, complete with lighting system. Unfortunately, the pandemic meant that she had been unable to continue with face-to-face teaching until now, when restrictions are beginning to lift in Scotland.
“I did take my fitness classes online during Covid, but it is much more difficult and can be a deflating experience,” she says. “They have to really watch the screen, and if there is a bad connection or delay and I’m communicating in sign language, they can feel disconnected from the class and not know what to do.”
It’s Hill’s mission to make training, online and in-person, easier not just for deaf people, but anyone with a disability. The majority of her clients are beginners, who have never experienced exercise classes that they could fully join in with.
“My clients are people who want to learn the basics of exercise because they haven’t been able to access it before,” Hill explains. “Going to the gym is very daunting and disheartening for a lot of deaf people. They can’t ask anyone for help when using the machines because of the communication barrier.”
In Hill’s interval training classes, she communicates in British Sign Language (in which she is fluent) and uses her coloured lights system to help her clients to know when their rest periods are.
Along with improving fitness and the mental health benefits, Hill also sees the sense of community her classes have fostered. “I’ve created a safe space for people to feel as at-home as possible,” she says. After her classes, participants often stay for hours afterwards and socialise.
“It’s a completely new experience for them. They get a good workout and their endorphins kick in, but I do this because I don’t like the exclusion of deaf people in fitness. They go through enough and it can feel very isolated and lonely not having your hearing.”
Hill hopes to offer different variations of classes in the future, and eventually mix her deaf and hearing classes together.
“I want to encourage the fitness industry to be more inclusive,” she shares. “Bigger gyms and studios need to do better at having things in place for deaf people to feel like they can ask questions or get help if they need it.”
Even having gym staff and trainers learn basic sign language could make a huge difference, Hill says. “It needs to be much more welcoming for not just deaf people, but wheelchair users and other disabled people.”
As a start, Hill would like to see exercise classes with screens and subtitles, so that deaf people can easily follow along with workouts. “It does take longer to explain things in BSL and go through the basics, as you have to make sure everyone’s looking at you and understanding. But that’s fine – I keep my classes small so that I can really talk to and help everyone.”
For tips on moving well and healthy recipes to support your fitness regime, check out the Strong Women Training Club.