The fault in our fitness formula 

With access and acceptance denied, people with disabilities unfold the ordeals at fitness centres and sports complexes while offering suggestions

Published: 12th April 2022 07:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th April 2022 07:00 AM   |  A+A-

People with disabilities at the Nethrodaya gym | R Satish Babu

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Nethrodaya, a self-help organisation for the visually impaired, is home to well-planned infrastructure with tactile floor markings, ramps, and spacious areas divided into a library, dining room, computer lab and study rooms. With this in mind, I stepped into the building for a look at their newly inaugurated gym for the disabled, hoping — perhaps, ignorantly — to see a specialised set-up that overshadows the other rooms.

However, the gym presented an unexpected resemblance to any other fitness centre. So, the question arose: What makes this option more welcoming to the disabled than the rest? C Govindakrishnan, founder and a visually impaired person, shines light on how, in his experience, discouragement to visit fitness centres is often more about stigma and accessibility than specialised equipment for the visually impaired.

“Several gyms do not welcome us, asking us to not bring in visually impaired people and claiming that it is too risky (for them to be there). They say they don’t want us there despite any assurance we might provide about payment. Why don’t we create a gym, we asked ourselves? We decided to not bring any new devices that are exclusive for the visually impaired. We wanted to create a platform for them where they can adapt to existing equipment, practice, enhance and become equals,” he shares. But, there are still changes that could be introduced to the infrastructure, he adds, such as auditory dissemination of indicators like distance ran and fat burned.

The gym can accommodate four or five people at a time (who are recommended a 45-minute workout each) and has been in the works for several years. Govindakrishnan has been collecting equipment one by one to ensure the best for the members and give a strong statement that they too are able to use the gym without fear. The members of Nethrodaya have been taking advantage of this facility, it seems. A Selvamani, an IAS aspirant at the institution, says, “I have always had an interest in fitness. But in the several hostels at which I have stayed, we could never get the equipment despite asking for it. Here, I can access it at whatever time I want. At other centres, it could get uncomfortable for us. We want to do our own thing, have a comfortable space and not have to search for things or ask for help. If someone is on an equipment, you (as an able-bodied person) can see that and do something else, but we can’t tell that. So, here, we don’t have to find someone and can communicate with each other (as we are not strangers).”

A variety of needs

However, not all people with disabilities have the same requirements, reminds Preethi Srinivasan, the co-founder of Soulfree, a charitable trust for the severely disabled. Where people with visual impairment may want braille instructions or a person with the knowledge to guide them, people in wheelchairs have very specific needs. There are two major requirements to be fulfilled: first, accessibility to the gym and second, enough equipment that can be used by a person in a wheelchair. This may require investment in the right kind of apparatus. “For example, treadmills that move constantly can cause a lot of stress for a person who is paralysed. At Soulfree INSPIRE (a rehabilitation facility in Thiruvannamalai), we have an imported treadmill, the belt of which only moves when the sensors detect that the second foot has been placed forward. These are specialised equipment that people are not releasing. There has been no effort, in my experience, to accommodate people on wheelchairs at fitness centres,” elaborates the quadriplegic former athlete.

However, the adoption of specialised equipment in every gym seems like a distant dream when even basic accessibility is still an issue. From lack of ramps to an abundance of steps, the system seems to be challenging at the most fundamental levels. For Suresh Giri K, a person with polio and marketing professional, Nethrodaya’s gym seemed like the best option, “Every gym is on the first or second floor. Even when there are lifts available, there is a step or two in the basement or at the entrance.” While his earlier gym experiences have been pleasant with much help from trainers and management, this is not a universal experience.

“I visited a well-known swimming pool to learn the sport. There, they didn’t allow me, since we (people with disabilities) would walk or roam around in their space, need privacy, need someone to support us,” he informs. And this attitude, he thinks, emerges from the commercialisation of these centres. Commercial minds do not think of people with disabilities, Suresh observes, adding that if the government or organisations like Nethrodaya begin these endeavours and raise awareness of these options, we may find more people with disabilities streaming in. Preethi concurs, adding that despite options such as dartboards, archery boards, and table tennis available and accessible for the disabled, nobody seems to think of such things.

For the hearing impaired individuals, while physical access or sight may be of no concern, lack of empathy and trained staff still prove to be a challenge, shares R Selvarani, director of physical education at Dr MGR Janaki College of Arts and Science. “User-friendly equipment with instructions for operation, sign-language trained instructors, private spaces for those who may be sensitive to music and alternatives to training with music (could make a difference). Trainers should also be given lessons on how to work with those with hearing impairment,” Selvarani recommends.

Sporting the truth

Where gyms and fitness centres falter, sports complexes do not seem to impress either. National-level basketball player Malathi Raja, still perseveres for the sport against all odds. “At our sports complex, they only let us use the outdoor court. Its rough nature not conducive to our wheelchairs; even a pebble can puncture the tire. If we puncture them, we don’t have anyone to replace them. And we only get the court from 9 am to 11 am. Furthermore, we don’t have proper restrooms, so we have to wear diapers.

And we are dependent on the smallest things,” she rues. As an athlete, Malathi also ensures proper upper body fitness but with her gym lift being inaccessible for nearly a year, she decided to instead buy home equipment like dumbbells, medicine ball, TheraBand and more as opposed to paying the same Rs 13,000 for a gym subscription where she cannot use half the equipment. While she has her restrictions, Malathi points to the district players on her team who face an uphill battle without the facilities that a metropolitan like Chennai can provide. “Some players can only practice during tournaments. Basketball for the disabled is just starting in India, but despite winning at the national level, our requests for small things like ramps are still denied,” she mentions.

Fit for a reason

For people with disabilities, the need for fitness is just as vital as any able-bodied person, if not more so. But recognition of this is hard to come by. “Why do you need this? You give food, clothing and education, this is not good for raising funds,” hears Govindakrishnan, who has been ridiculed and told that only a pathetic image of an NGO can command funds. But people with disabilities are not animals to feed, he conveys passionately. “People do not want to get involved in workouts because they believe this is a secondary (affair). But I suggest that people pay some attention to this matter and create these facilities in their centres as well. This gym is a model and needs to be replicated.”

Fitness enhances mental and physical strength for people in wheelchairs, for whom the initial few years can be difficult to cope, as Preethi mentions, “In India, many with disabilities go into debt for treatment. So, they don’t know what to do when they get home from the hospitals. When you have a serious physical impairment, you put on significant weight and can’t afford to eat like you did. When your own body stops cooperating, many go into bouts of depression, anger, and resentment. I look at my body and don’t even recognise who I am anymore. At this point, the only pleasurable thing is food and if you can’t even have that, what’s the point of living? Many develop obesity and comorbidities in the first year. The lack of movement also curbs the ability of the intestines and increases bloating. Then, staying fit becomes crucial.”  

Perhaps, the increase of these fitness centres would also be assets to the upcoming generation, Malathi hopes. As someone who adopted sports after her disability, she found that it could renew society’s view of you. “Before basketball, I had a completely different mindset. I felt as though I am of no use to anyone and had an inferiority complex. Now, people don’t see me as a person with a disability, but as a player,” she says. Just one ramp, one working lift, one knowledgeable trainer, one empathetic gesture, just one little change could make a big one.

  • Soulfree INSPIRE is located at Old GH Compound, SH6, Bavaji Nagar, Thamarai Nagar, Tiruvannamalai. Timing: 10 am to 6 pm
  • Nethrodaya is located at 47/1, Bharathi Salai, Mogappair West, Ambattur Industrial Estate. Timings: 5 am to 9 pm


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