Beyond Disability and Disability Awareness

I have read too many articles that feature a story about an individual with a disability who has not been served or who has been turned away from a gym or some other public facility because staff did not know how to provide for or accommodate the need of the individual.  For the purposes of this article, accommodation is defined as “adjustments or modifications that enable an individual with a disability or various disabilities to fully participate.” 1.

Recently, I read an article called  “Woonsocket Gym manager’s feat of kindness goes viral”. The article relayed a story about a man with a disability named Wagner.  Wagner was going to work out with a family member at a local gym in Rhode Island.  He had worn boots instead of sneakers. Because of the improper footwear, the pair was going to leave the facility early.  The gym manager learned that Wagner had forgotten his sneakers.  In response, he sent other staff from the gym to the nearby sports store to purchase a pair of sneakers for Wagner.

The story is certainly a feel-good story. However, the article got me thinking again about disability, disability awareness, accommodation, and competency.  Our Health, Disability, Fitness, and many other fields need to promote a different framework and mindset related to disability, disability awareness, accommodation, inclusion and participation.

Training on the topic of disability and disability awareness needs to broaden beyond the characteristics of various disabilities and developing disability awareness and sensitivity.  The framework needs to evolve to a scheme that addresses accommodation in practical terms.  This includes teaching professionals to  provide a range of adjustments and modifications in a practical way that allow an individual with a disability to fully participate with their peers in a gym or other similar setting.  

Professionals need to learn  what I will call disability competencies such as  effectively communicating with people with disabilities, understanding the needs of people with disabilities, and identifying and effectively using a range of strategies to accommodate individual needs.

When I researched this topic and elements of disability awareness training, literature identifies specific stages of training.  Stage one of training includes “exposure” and introducing  information about various disabilities or disability characteristics.

Stage two includes experiential learning which consists of direct interactions with individuals with disabilities.  The interaction includes an assessment of what a person with a disability needs.  The individual and professional work together to identify the accommodation or accommodations that will allow the individual to fully participate. 

An example of an accommodation  might include providing a chair so that a person can participate while seated.  The overall goal is to make information, materials, and equipment accessible and usable for the person to participate.

Stage three includes the strategy or implementation phase.  From an assessment, for example, a professional might identify that a person with a disability needs a sticky mat to help maintain their body alignment and posture.  The professional would select the appropriate sticky mat based upon the thickness of the mat, the texture of the mat, and the level of stickiness of the mat.

Ownership is the culmination of  exposure, experiential learning, the assessment, and application of the accommodation.   In the proposed framework, the professional “owns” the  problem-solving process by working directly with the individual and ensuing the identified accommodation is successful.  That is, from the accommodation provided, the individual with a disability is able to participate effectively with their peers.

In the expanded framework I am proposing, professionals need to be taught hands-on strategies to:
1. Effectively interact with individuals with disabilities,
2. Effectively assess and identify potential and practical  accommodations, and
3. Effectively implement accommodations and related
supports for individuals with a variety of disabilities.

While disability awareness and sensitivity training is critical, available  training also needs to include identified principles and competencies across multiple sectors and disciplines.

For additional reading: see: Fitness Centers still lack accessibility for people with disabilities.

Suggested Resources include: The National Center on Disability, Health, and Physical Activity.

  1. The definition of accommodation is adapted from the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion.

Excerpts of this article were originally published in the “Endless CapABILITIES Blog”, and National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability, sponsored by The National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability ( NCHPAD is part of the UAB/Lakeshore Research Collaborative and supported by Grant/Cooperative Agreement Number U59DD000906 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).



Bullying Prevention

I turned on the television recently and watched yet another story about a person with a disability being bullied, victimized, and hurt.  As I watched the story, I thought about times in middle school where I too was bullied. defines bullying as “as unwanted, aggressive behavior, among school age children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.  The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”   

Even though over thirty years have passed, I remember having a group of my peers repeatedly kick or knock my walking devices out of my hands.  All I was doing was walking to class …  As my walking  devices fell,  I fell.  If I was lucky I would land on my knees.  Other times my body would land on the floor with a thud. 

As I worked to get up, the bullying crew would erupt into laughter… The laughter would echo through the hallway as they retreated.  The crew had to beat the late bell and the Hall Monitor.  If they were seen with me, someone might figure out  what happened.  

There were many occasions where I had black and blue marks from those falls.  However, it was not just the bruises that hurt.  I moved differently.  Because of this I was more vulnerable to bullying.  I did not want to bullied or to be a victim. 

My response to the incidents of bullying was to try to educate and change the minds of my peers.  I would approach my parents, middle school teachers, and physical therapists to support me to educate my classmates about my disability.

In practice, it frequently meant having my classmates sitting around me while my physical therapist would sit beside me and we would explain the  concepts of Spastic Cerebral Palsy, its prevalence, and overall effects.  My physical therapist would assist me to explain how the CP effected my movement and why I could not maintain balance. 

The incidents of bullying lessened as I got older.  However,  the reality was I was treated differently because of inaccurate beliefs,  perceptions,  and judgements  from a visible difference – my walking  devices. 

What is troubling to me now is bullying and victimization has grown in its prevalence and forms.  Research continues to demonstrate that students with disabilities are bullied and victimized at a significantly higher rate than students without disabilities.1 

Research shows the following:

a) compared  to students without disabilities, students with intellectual disabilities are 2 to 3 times more likely to be bullied and  victimized, and

b) students with observable disabilities are 2 to 4 times more likely to be victimized. 2

Thinking back, when I would hold those sessions to educate my classmates, I was attempting to infuse the concepts of inclusion, diversity, and respect for difference in the minds of my peers. 

Stories like the one I just watched on television tell me that there is still a lot of work to do to imbue these concepts in our classrooms and other environments.  My solace in writing this piece is that there are many bullying prevention and disability awareness initiatives underway such as:

1.Rose, C. A., Stormont, M., Wang, Z., Simpson, C. G., Preast, J. L., & Green, A. L. (2015, December). Bullying and students with disabilities: examination of disability status and educational placement. School Psychology Review, 44(4), 425+.

2.Rose, C. A., Stormont, M., Wang, Z., Simpson, C. G., Preast, J. L., & Green, A. L. (2015, December). Bullying and students with disabilities: examination of disability status and educational placement. School Psychology Review, 44(4), 425+.

Change Transitions

I recently read an article by Barbara J. Linney called “Surviving in a world of change.” Ms. Linney effectively illustrates that when unwanted change is thrust upon people, we experience a range of emotions.  The emotions go  from denial to anger, anger to sadness, and then evolve to feelings of emptiness and loss. 1 

The article made me think about how people manage significant changes in their lives and deal with the emotional earthquakes, aftershocks, and impact, that frequently results from major changes.

Simply put, change is messy. Change disrupts our routines, what is safe, familiar, and comfortable. Some changes are irrevocable. Change causes permanent endings.  It  creates a sense of longing for what we knew before the change took place.

In another article I read on this topic called “Managing Change Transitions”, the  author Sara White, defines change as an external event that is situational such as a getting a divorce or accepting a new job. 2  

Transition on the other hand, is the internal, psychological process that people go through as they come to terms with the change.  Change Transition is defined as the reorientation process people go through.  It is the process we navigate to move from an ending to a new beginning.

At the start of the process, old ties, connections, and routines are broken. 3  People go through a process of reassessment and experimentation.  The goal is to reorient and re-conceptualize a person’s role in the new  and altered conditions or environment.  Ms. White describes the process as casting off a shell. 4

The element of Change Transition that I struggle with the most is the ‘no man’s land’ or neutral zone that comes from trying to navigate between the old landscape and the new. 

When I think about that in-between space, I am reminded of road trips where the GPS seems to malfunction and sends travelers in circles or miles off the main roadway. A reorientation and recalculation have to happen.

Questions we face in the experimentation phase include: “Where do I fit now?”

Finding the “fit” might mean mingling with a new group of people, trying out a different form of physical activity or sport, or recruiting a mentor to help explore different opportunities. I have recruited many mentors over time. Each mentor I recruit is a person I respect who has a particular expertise. My mentors help me to identify:

a) what my goals are,

b) what I need to accomplish my goals,

c) what resources I need to find, and they challenge me to think differently and to use available resources differently.  

As difficult and emotional as the phases of Change Transition are, the outcome of the process is growth, new beginnings, and new opportunities. Tell me, what Change Transitions have you found the most difficult? What strategies did you use to support yourself or a loved one  through the transition?

1. Linney, Barbara J. “Surviving in a world of change.” Physician Executive, Feb. 1994, p. 39+.

2. White, Sara J. “Managing change transitions.” American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy, vol. 65, no. 24, 2008, p. 2334+.

3.  White, Sara J. “Managing change transitions.” American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy, vol. 65, no. 24, 2008, p. 2334+.

4. White, Sara J. “Managing change transitions.” American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy, vol. 65, no. 24, 2008, p. 2334+.