Ensuring Universal Design in Sports and Exercise: A Call to Action
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Ensuring Universal Design in Sports and Exercise: A Call to Action

Cheri Blauwet, M.D. | Jan 23, 2018

In recent years, much attention has been given to the importance of exercise, with its myriad of associated health benefits. Data demonstrates that people with disabilities are far less likely to engage in leisure time physical activity when compared to their able-bodied counterparts, and more likely to experience the negative health impact of chronic disease. For example, a recent CDC Vital Signs Report noted that nearly half of all adults with disabilities ages 18-64 get no aerobic physical activity. Those who do not exercise are 50 percent more likely to report at least one chronic disease when compared to active adults with disabilities. Given that people with disabilities represent an estimated 20 percent of our adult, U.S. population, this can easily be seen as a public health crisis. Additionally concerning is evidence

 demonstrating that we, as sport and exercise medicine professionals, may also have our own internal bias toward counseling people with disabilities on the importance of exercise. For example, data from the National Health Interview Survey from 2009-2012 revealed that only 44 percent of adults with disabilities received physical activity recommendations from a health professional in the prior 12 months.

In light of these concerns, how do we find the way forward? By embracing concepts of universal design and applying them to a sports and exercise context, much can be achieved. Here are two ideas to get started:

Changing our Mindset: Remember that disability is not an “us and them” phenomenon – it is a “we” phenomenon. The disability community is one of the only minority groups that anyone can enter, at any point in life – and, once there, membership may be transient or permanent. Additionally, every single one of us will acquire a disability if we live long enough. Thus, the accommodations that we put in place to serve people with disabilities, in fact, serve us all. Furthermore, providing accommodations is not something that is “nice to do” for a small subset of the population, but instead is a smart business move for organizations and businesses that want to serve the broadest swath of the community.

Implement Universal Design in all Realms: Providing accommodations means much more than simply putting a ramp by the front door. Rather, fully embracing universal design requires thinking across the spectrum of experience, including aspects of policy and programming that create for an inclusive environment. Take for example a private fitness gym. Sure, the gym should have an accessible entrance and bathroom facilities, but what else can be done? Taking extra steps such as considering how to offer cardiovascular fitness classes for people with different levels of mobility, having information available in accessible formats such as Braille and large print, and using individuals with disabilities in marketing materials (among others) will make a tremendous impact to both staff and customers, both those with and without a disability. The United States Access board has guidelines on how best ensure your fitness facility is inclusive.

It is time to ask - have we done enough to ensure equal access to these opportunities for people of all backgrounds and abilities? And, as sport and exercise medicine professionals, where does our responsibility lie? By working collaboratively, toward a common goal, we are poised to ensure that into the future, exercise is for every BODY.

At the 2018 ACSM Health and Fitness Summit, I will deliver a keynote lecture arguing that we must do more to ensure that opportunities for physical fitness do not discriminate and are universally accessible. The ACSM Summit will take place April 5-8 in Arlington, Virginia. To learn more or register for this meeting, please visit www.acsmsummit.org.

ACSM Board of Trustees member Cheri A. Blauwet (@CheriBlauwetMD) is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, is a seven-time Paralympic medalist and serves on the board of the United States Olympic Committee. She recently authored a New York Times op-ed titled, “I Use a Wheelchair. And Yes, I’m Your Doctor.