What a revolutionary concept — to have a fitness center dedicated to people with disabilities.
The Virginia G. Piper Sports and Fitness Center for Persons with Disabilities is to be distinguished from hospitals and therapy centers. There are plenty of those, and their value goes without saying. But this Phoenix facility is a gym for people with disabilities who want to work out for fitness, athletic training or any of myriad reasons in addition to therapy.
Called SpoFit, the fitness center is only the second in the country dedicated to serving those with disabilities and their families, with the purpose of making life as easy as possible. It was named by the local Phoenix New Times as the “Best Gym for Everyone” for 2013.
In many gyms, those who need more space for wheelchairs or just steadying themselves can find the equipment packed pretty tightly. And while pools and spas must have accessibility equipment to comply with federal law, sometimes staff members aren’t as comfortable working with this population. “I think this just gives a new level of comfort,” says Brienne McDowell, SpoFit’s membership coordinator.
It is used by a wide range of clients, from those just looking to maintain their health to residents of assisted living facilities to aspiring Paralympians. The center serves about 1,500 individuals — approximately 500 with monthly or annual memberships, another 500 with punch passes committing them to 12 visits in a year, and the rest visiting from adult assisted living facilities, day programs and schools.
The aquatics facility within the center is built to accommodate this wide range. It includes a hot tub, therapy pool and lap pool. Each pool has a lift, and the lap pool has a transfer bench with shallow steps connected to it so users can easily enter and exit.
Both pools are equipped with an elevator lift that lowers users approximately 3 feet from deck level to pool floor. Those who need it can use a plastic wheelchair designed for the water. The elevator essentially replaces a ramp or zero-depth entry, which require substantial pool area to gradually slope down to the floor. This way, more space is devoted to classes and swimming.
The therapy pool is kept at 88- to 92 degrees and has underwater handlebars to make aerobics easier.
Currently, the aquatics center offers six classes, ranging from those aimed at arthritis sufferers to water walking to variations on tai chi and yoga.
Accommodating family members makes going to the gym more convenient since the hardest part of any exercise program is just showing up. “If it becomes, ‘My husband’s going to this gym but I’m going to that gym,’ it gets less likely that either will have success,” McDowell says. “We’re doing our best to break down barriers or speed bumps.”
The center also offers free memberships to veterans who suffered physical or psychological/emotional injuries while serving. A program coordinated with the Wounded Warrior Project also includes free personal-training sessions each month for its members. The center is able to accomplish this through grant funding.
The aquatic classes have a diverse range of students, and staff must be able to tailor the instruction to meet many needs. Some employees have parks and recreation degrees or other backgrounds appropriate for a fitness center, but few specialized in serving those with disabilities. To respond to clients’ needs, these employees have been trained in a variety of areas pertaining to the disabled community.
To that end, local veterans’ organizations offer presentations about what it’s like to have suffered both physical and psychological injuries. A recent session dispelled some of the myths about post traumatic stress disorder. “I think through television and movies we have these overly dramatic ideas of what PTSD is,” McDowell says. “But it’s not always that dramatic and big. People respond to issues in a lot of different ways. So we learned how we can assist and different ways to step in when needed.”
But one of the most important lessons has been to treat those with disabilities just like anyone else. “I think there’s this belief that you have to give more assistance to someone if they have a disability,” McDowell says. “But do I want to suddenly be bombarded by people trying to offer me advice and help me when I just want to have a quiet swim? Say hello, see if I need anything, but other than that, I’ll go about doing my workout.”