Over the last few years, access to appropriate health and fitness facilities for people with disabilities has been a much-discussed point of debate.
Indeed, “disabled fitness” and “inclusive fitness” are more and more becoming essential topics of discussion for healthcare professionals in the twenty-first century, and there are a wealth of amazing resources for people who have disabilities, looking to engage in regular fitness..
However, what appears to be less frequently discussed are the potential hurdles facing a personal trainer with a disability.
Indeed, many people ask us whether it is even possible to become a personal trainer with a disability.
Our answer is, of course, yes!
In fact, we would actively encourage you to do so, and there are a great number of avenues to explore in terms of disabled fitness if you are considering a personal training career and you have a disability. But first, it is useful to give context to this discussion, in order to understand why so many people with disabilities overlook personal training as a viable career path.
Some facts and numbers
There are currently 13.3 million disabled people in the UK. In fact, according to the research of Scope, seven per cent of all UK children are disabled, while eighteen per cent of working age adults and forty-four per cent of pension age adults are disabled.
The reason these numbers are often so surprising, is that many people don’t consider the wide spectrum of conditions, both physical and mental, that make up the disabled population. By extension then, this means that many areas of disabled fitness, and opportunities for inclusive fitness schemes, are overlooked.
Despite differing in the obstacles they present, Scope found that, as a whole, people with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people.
Research completed in partnership with Birmingham University has found similar disparities in terms of people with disabilities having the opportunity to enter work. They reported that there was a significant under-representation of disabled people in the UK workforce, citing data from the Office of National Statistics which suggested that only 49.6% of individuals with a long-standing health or disability were in employment.
Perhaps more importantly for our discussion, the research also revealed that disabled people exhibit lower levels of physical activity than non-disabled people (17 per cent compared to 39.9 per cent) and that there are comparatively few disabled people employed within the fitness and leisure industry.
Why is this context important?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given what we have covered already, research has shown that barriers to participation in exercise include a scarcity of inclusive opportunities, a lack of information about opportunities, and physical difficulties with accessibility.
See the problem here?
In the past, becoming a personal trainer with a disability has been like being caught in a negative cycle: your disability may prevent you from certain exercises, and those exercises you can do, you can’t access, and those one’s you can access may not be available in your near vicinity, or you may not be aware of them. And the cycle goes on, repeat ad infinitum…
However, such low numbers of existing PTs with disabilities presents clear opportunities.
Disabled fitness and inclusive fitness schemes currently operate almost in a vacuum, sometimes wholly detached from the wider fitness industry. We’re here to tell you there are qualifications and options available to personal trainers with a disability, and more importantly, once you have achieved those qualifications, there is great potential for a successful career.
Why should I consider a career as a personal trainer with a disability?
Putting aside the career goals for a second, the benefits of exercise and training for people with disabilities are vast and well-documented. A study by TG Fitness, who specialise in exercise for people with disabilities, has demonstrated the clear improvements made by their clients before and after training. These include a 550% increase in the average time they were able to complete a plank, and an 83% increase in the number of wall push ups they could complete in thirty seconds.
If we take these results and measure them against a government report that the most commonly reported impairments by disabled people are mobility, stamina, and fatigue, we can see the pressing need for more specialist personal trainers with a disability.
Despite being relatively few in number, there are personal trainers out there capitalising on the need for more specialists. Take Dom Thorpe, for example. Founding his PT business DT training in 2008, he has identified and acknowledges the challenges faced by people with disabilities entering the world of fitness, and has studied and created methods appropriate to his growing client list.
He says, “all It takes is a bit of thinking outside the box.”
What options (courses and qualifications) are out there for someone wanting to begin a career in disabled fitness?
Like all personal trainers in the UK, to be fully qualified you will at least need to gain your Level 2 Gym Instructors Course and your Level 3 Personal Training qualification. If you are worried about the viability of completing the practical aspect of the Level 3, for example, we would suggest contacting course providers to ask them whether you could complete their course given your specific disability.
From here, what is best to look for from your provider is whether they are backed by REPS and CIMPSA, the two main governing bodies for fitness professionals and personal trainers.
If your disability restricts your movement, or if you suffer anxiety, for example, and want to minimise the contact time with tutors for your own comfort and ease of mind, then be sure to check how the course is delivered. At OriGym, for example, we offer a range of full-time, part-time, and online courses, meaning you can see your tutors as much or as little as you please.
As well as these foundational qualifications, there are a range of additional courses and programs to help you specialise in becoming a personal trainer with a disability who focuses on clients with disabilities. At OriGym, we run a GP referral course, qualifying you to train clients referred to you by their GP, following a physical injury or illness.
Another program is the Aspire Charity’s InstructAbility Programme. This is currently the only dedicated program focusing on disabled people’s career progression, having successfully deployed over three hundred fitness professionals into work across the UK. The program is award-winning due to its success, and provides disabled people with free industry training, followed by a voluntary placement where students work alongside people with disabilities in the local area to encourage more access to sport and fitness across the country.
To be eligible for InstructAbility, candidates need to be over the age of sixteen, have some experience within a gym, be able to attend selection days and course days, and be willing to commit a minimum of twelve weeks voluntary work after the course.
There are also specific paid courses for working with people with disabilities, which will help you specialise and qualify you for expanded roles later in your career.
What we are saying is, there are plenty of options out there if you want to begin a career in disabled fitness.
Am I the right type of person for the job?
Do you have a passion for health and fitness? Do you enjoy the idea of working with people to improve their wellbeing? Are you an excellent communicator? A people person?
Then yes, you are absolutely the right person for the job.
There is so much more to being a personal trainer than just being fit. You need to be a coach and a friend to your clients. You need to have a keen business eye, and be able to spot creative opportunities to market your brand.
This is particularly important.
If you are going to specialise in disabled fitness, disabled sport, or inclusive fitness, then your status as a personal trainer with a disability is going to be your unique selling point. Your experience overcoming your disability, and your understanding of the difficulties faced by your clients, will allow you to empathise and build an immediate rapport.
This is exactly how to turn your anxieties about the fitness industry into career opportunities. As we covered, due to the relatively low number of personal trainers with disabilities working in the UK, you will likely be the only professional offering tailored, expert advice to the disabled community in your area.
How can I capitalise on the opportunities?
From a business perspective, there are a number of options available to a personal trainer with a disability. As we mentioned previously, a course like OriGym’s GP Referral Course, will give you access to a large pool of potential clients, who will appreciate your specialised knowledge and experience of working with disabilities.
Building your brand as a specialist, specifically working with clients who have disabilities, will allow you to expand your remit into online video tutorials and local group classes. Again, you will likely have little competition, so you can really corner a niche market with potentially lucrative gains to be had.
As a specialist of training people with disabilities, you may also want to consider two things:
- You can still train non-disabled clients: don’t corner yourself off. If you believe you can offer a service to a non-disabled client, go for it! You are an expert, and you will have the same knowledge as your peers. When choosing a personal trainer, so much of a client’s relationship to you is predicated upon trust and rapport. Offer that, and you can rapidly expand your client list.
- Remember, mental health issues are disabilities too. It is definitely worth reading up on conditions like anxiety, depression, and ASC (autistic spectrum condition), in order to gain an understanding of the obstacles faced by sufferers of these conditions. If you can make your gym a welcoming environment for people of all disabilities, you will quickly gain notoriety as a PT. Also consider home visits for individuals who may not be comfortable visiting a gym. This will go a long way in increasing accessibility for clients with disabilities.
Whether you are looking to specialise or have a wide remit with your clients, it is clear that more personal trainers who have disabilities qualifying to work in the fitness industry can only be a good thing.
Take an inspiring story like James Sutliff as an example.
James’ life was changed overnight when he started inexplicably suffering slurred speech. Soon after, he started losing grip in his hands, and after months of confusion, eventually received a diagnosis of dystonia.
Prior to his diagnosis, James was a semi-professional rugby player and a keen gym enthusiast. Instead of letting his diagnosis restrict the options he had in life, he chose to pursue a career in fitness and personal training, and is now a successful PT, both in person and online. James’ story is testament to what you can achieve with some creative marketing, and a shed-load of determination in the face of adversity.
Despite the obstacles faced by a personal trainer with a disability, the subject with which we opened this article, there have been some clear steps forward in the last few years. Since it was established in 2000, the Inclusive Fitness Initiative has received millions of pounds of funding from bodies like Sport England and the Lottery fund. Events like the 2012 Paralympic Games, and the record attention it received from national audiences have also helped to champion inclusivity in the fitness industry.
There are also a wealth of charities and organisations like Disabled Living, spreading awareness about the obstacles that people with disabilities face, and facilitating integration into many different aspects of society, from employment and education to recreational activities.
Indeed, such sites also offer specific advice with regard to the importance of a healthy lifestyle for people with disabilities, providing an invaluable resource for anyone considering specialising in personal training for people with disabilities, and the disabled fitness sector.
What is needed now more than ever is an influx of qualified personal trainers with disabilities, to help maximise accessibility throughout the UK. As we have seen, the potential rewards of such a career are great.
In James Sutliff’s words, “I have such a variation of clients with different disabilities, mental health, anything. It’s fantastic. It is such a rewarding career, and it is my passion for life, I love it.”