Inclusive Exercise | How to Get Started
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Inclusive Exercise | How to Get Started

John M. Cissik, MS, MBA | Sep 21, 2018

Inclusive Fitness ACSM

Bottom Line Upfront:

Working with individuals with special needs can be both a rewarding and challenging opportunity.  If this is something that you feel you might be interested in, it’s important to get experience and make sure that you have the skillset to make a positive impact on the lives of these individuals.


Working with special needs individuals can be a very challenging but rewarding opportunity.  As I indicated in a previous post, it takes a special skillset to be able to do it.  I have coached for over 20 years now and for the last six I have also worked with special needs athletes.  I teach special education.  I am also the parent to a child with Down Syndrome, so I have a different perspective on this than most people do.  To me the most important thing, if you are thinking of working with individuals with special needs, is to have the skills set to make a positive impact on their lives.

It’s important to understand that sports, fitness, programs, academic programs, service, and leadership programs for individuals with special needs are about developing them as men and women.  It’s about teaching them skills that they can use in life.


Before working with individuals with special needs, you need to understand what you are getting yourself into, because this is not for everyone.  This requires you to be both cheerleader and stern taskmaster.  Many people get into this field for the wrong reason, they find special needs individuals to be cute.  This results in a terrible experience for the fitness/sports professional and it results in an experience that does not contribute positively to the growth and development of the individual with special needs.

It’s important to understand that sports, fitness, programs, academic programs, service, and leadership programs for individuals with special needs are about developing them as men and women.  It’s about teaching them skills that they can use in life.  If you are not doing that then you have wasted everyone’s time.

Get some experience.  This is best done by volunteering.  Everyone wants to jump straight into making money, but this is a mistake.  Volunteering gives you a chance to understand what working with the special needs population is like, it allows you to make contacts, and it gives you credibility.

Where do you find volunteer opportunities?
There are several places that you can find these.  The First is Special Olympics (www.specialolympics.org).  There are also national and state organizations.  At the local level there are Special Olympics teams that compete in multiple sports, usually clustered around cities or school districts.  The state organization usually has the contact information for the local levels.  Here you have the opportunity to do everything from just helping out at competitions all the way to coaching teams on a day-to-day basis.

Second are different service/not-for-profit organizations geared towards individuals with special needs.  For example, in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex we have the Down Syndrome Guild of Dallas (www.downsyndromedallas.org) and the Down Syndrome Partnership of North Texas (www.dspnt.org).  These are things you just have to search out and find something that offers programming that aligns with your interests and skills set, then you have to reach out and volunteer.

Third, there are always local opportunities to be on the lookout for.  For example, when I run my programs for children with Down Syndrome I advertise that I need help through my church’s weekly news bulletin.  

Now for the big question: Are there opportunities to make this a profitable niche for a fitness or sports professional? 
That’s a tough question to answer. 
Special needs individuals, as a population, may have more medical expenses than the “normal” population.  They may be receiving speech therapy services.  They may be receiving occupational and/or physical therapy services.  They may require medical devices, prescription medications, and other services (like a therapy dog).  All of these are costs that these families incur. 

The point to keep in mind here is that many families may already be stretched to a financial breaking point and while they’d like to take advantage of services they may be unable to do so financially.  By definition, this is a small group of people to begin with, once you start narrowing it down by people that have the ability to afford services it gets really small, all of which makes this a difficult niche to work in and find enough business to support yourself.

Author: John Cissik teaches special education at McKinney ISD in McKinney, Texas. He coaches baseball, basketball, strength and conditioning, Special Olympics, and Miracle League. John has written 14 books and over 100 print articles on strength and conditioning, fitness, and coaching.

Opinions expressed in the ACSM Certification Blog are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect positions of ACSM.