Adaptive training boosts inclusivity in University Recreation fitness programs

Kevin Ogar with the Adaptive Training Academy demonstrated challenges individuals with disabilities can face in the gym (photo by Joseph Gardner, Division of Student Affairs).

Creating an inclusive environment in a gym is about more than having adaptive equipment available. It requires staff to be ready to teach people of all abilities how to reach their fitness goals.

This was a key message University Recreation (UREC) staff heard during a recent two-day workshop conducted by the Adaptive Training Academy (ATA) on the Pullman campus. 

The workshop demonstrated how UREC can take a more proactive and systematic approach to creating a welcoming environment where everyone can feel successful regardless of their abilities. The fitness industry has historically not been responsive to the needs of people with disabilities said Joseph Martin, UREC coordinator for group fitness and instruction, and implementing adaptations tends to be an afterthought.  Martin said the training challenged his perspective on how to teach fitness classes and coach athletes.

“It encouraged us to flip the script,” said Martin. “This semester I challenged my instructors to think about universal design and how we can structure our classes to benefit the most people possible from the start.”

Cassondra Yarlott, assistant director for operations in the Access Center and a yoga instructor for UREC, said being proactive about accessibility has an immediate impact on making people with disabilities feel welcome in the gym.

“No matter who comes to our class or training session, if we as instructors and trainers feel comfortable working with people with disabilities, our clients will get a better workout, better achieve their fitness goals, and be safe, which is extremely important,” she said.

WSU leads the way

Alec Zirkenbach, executive director of ATA, said his team has conducted training at over 1,500 gyms and organizations around the globe, but the workshop at WSU was their first at a college or university recreation center. His team is the only one in the world educating trainers solely on how to provide functional fitness for people with disabilities. 

“It is great to see Washington State University take the lead in offering this kind of training to its recreational staff,” Zirkenbach said. “Their team asked a lot of good questions and were very engaging. They are definitely a step ahead of other universities.”

Jenna Muri-Rosenthal, an ATA coach who joined Zirkenbach in Pullman, said her organization prides itself on providing a real-world approach that combines experiential learning with breakout sessions and lectures, something Nathaniel Gordon, a graduate student in the Carson College of Business and a UREC personal trainer, appreciated.

Gordon and his colleagues had the opportunity to perform some adaptive exercises to gain a better understanding of the unique challenges people with disabilities can face in the gym. He thought exercising in the seated position, as many wheelchair users do, was particularly impactful. 

“The key for us trainers is to understand that we can work with everyone if we make the effort to learn about their disability.”

Nathaniel Gordon
WSU graduate student and UREC personal trainer

“The key for us trainers is to understand that we can work with everyone if we make the effort to learn about their disability,” Gordon said. “There’s a million more things they can do than they can’t do.”  

Gordon pointed out that it’s an educational process for both staff and members of the community, as many people with disabilities are unaware that they can participate in fitness. Yarlott said fitness is important, not only for their improved physical and mental health, but to provide opportunities to meet people, try something new, and be more active in the WSU community.

“To be one of a few universities to have completed this training is a big deal,” she said. “It shows that we are committed to being inclusive, and I invite everyone to check out what is available at UREC.”

In a tangible example of how the training inspired UREC staff, an adaptive division has been added for the Palouse Throwdown — a CrossFit competition scheduled for April 1 at the Chinook Student Center. Registration is open and all people with disabilities are invited to join.

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