Nezar Akeel, the founder and CEO of MAXPRO, shares the importance of accessibility and why people with disabilities are underserved in fitness.
Probably the greatest source of joy for anyone in this industry is seeing people who walk into their gyms unhappy about their physical — and even mental — condition grow into more healthy and confident clients. It’s that special moment when one of your regular customers walks in one day, radiating confidence and pride, and you think to yourself, “This is a completely different person than the one who first walked in a year ago.”
Let’s consider another perspective. Gym owners may love seeing healthier customers walk through their doors, but guess what — there remains a massive part of the population who still finds it difficult to walk through those doors in the first place.
I’m talking about people with disabilities — a vibrant and diverse community of 1.5 billion, according to the World Health Organization’s most recent count. That’s 15% of the entire global population.
Certainly not all of us are deficient at meeting this community’s needs, but many of us can do a lot better. Much of this accessibility problem can be traced back to government policies, or lack thereof. But as with so many other issues our world faces today, let’s not wait around for others to do something about it. Let’s roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves.
Here are the stats: 81% of people with disabilities report wanting to be more physically active than they currently are, and 25.8% of people with disabilities are inactive compared to 12.8% of peers without disabilities. And just like everyone else, the pandemic has made things worse for people with disabilities, too. According to an IHRSA survey conducted in 2020, “27% of people with disabilities felt the pandemic significantly reduced their ability to be active and only 29% felt they had the opportunity to be as active as they wanted to be.”
So, how do gyms fit into all of this? According to UNESCO research conducted in 2019, “57% of fitness clubs surveyed reported having only 10% or fewer members with disabilities, and 28% of the fitness clubs reported not having any members with disabilities.”
OK, enough with data. What does lack of accessibility in a gym actually look like?
It’s the lack of specialized equipment, wheelchair ramps and adequate bathroom facilities. It’s the lack of disability-specific fitness programs. It’s the lack of people with disabilities in your marketing materials. The sheer lacking of this-or-that goes on. The expense for a gym owner doesn’t have to be astronomical. There are alternative fitness products and services that are safe, effective and economical. Compared to the fines associated with not being ADA-compliant, the upfront cost of making your gym accessible is actually quite reasonable.
To chart a path forward and make your gym more accessible to people of all abilities, IHRSA is a fantastic resource, but a step that all of us can take today, albeit a small one, is to complete the Americans With Disabilities Act Checklist. In order to affect meaningful change, first we need to understand what exactly needs changing, and this checklist will do just that.
In summary, we all know people with disabilities represent an enormous untapped market. It’s a literal continent-sized group of people waiting to step into your gym, use your equipment, attend your classes and give you their money.
If we do this right — and if we do it together — the smiles that walk through our doors will affect a lot more powerful change than simply making us feel good.