People with intellectual disabilities have high prevalence of physical inactivity and high rates of preventable health conditions, including obesity and cardiovascular disease. Increased participation in fitness and wellness activities can improve their overall health and well-being. However, many fitness and wellness organizations do not know how to effectively serve this population nor how to support their inclusion into their programs.
All students should have the opportunity to participate in physical education class. PE teachers want to be inclusive, but they don’t always know how make their classes inclusive, as they have limited experience working with students with disabilities.
Understanding your community and intentionally reaching out to people with intellectual disabilities is key to creating an inclusive environment. Reach out to your local Special Olympics Program and other local community organizations to identify leaders that can connect you to people with intellectual disabilities. Ask the experts – ask people with intellectual disabilities to be a part of your team and to provide feedback and support on programmatic and organizational changes.
Integrate disability awareness and etiquette content into staff orientation and trainings. Identify staff that have experience working with people with intellectual disabilities and give them opportunities to educate their peers. Invite a guest speaker with intellectual disabilities to talk with your staff. Remind staff they already have the skills to make modifications so that people of all abilities may safely participate. Require staff to take continuing education courses.
Update your programs to be more user friendly for people with intellectual disabilities. For example, use multiple methods of communication. Typically, fitness and wellness programming centers around verbal instructions and modeling of actions. Consider adding visual/pictorial instructions, written instructions, and/or interactive activities and individualized support where appropriate. Also, use concise easy to understand (non-technical) language in all verbal and written communications. Allow participants to indicate what modifications or accommodations they may need when registering for your programs. When planning new programs, anticipate needs that may arise for people of different abilities.
Many adults with intellectual disabilities have low incomes. Consider adding financial assistance programs such as scholarships, sliding scale fees, or a “buddy discount” to allow people with intellectual disabilities to participate with paid support staff, family members, or friends.
Ensure all registration/membership applications, health forms, and other paperwork use concise easy to understand language. Offer electronic, paper, and other formats, such as large print. Provide one on one assistance to people as needed.
Minimize barriers in the physical environment that would hinder participation for people with mobility limitations. Do a walk-through of your gym floor or activity space with people with intellectual and mobility disabilities to get feedback on accessibility and layout.
Ensure your marketing materials include pictures of diverse people, including people with disabilities, and contain language to reflect that ALL people of ALL abilities are welcome.
Every individual, regardless of age, ability, gender, sexual orientation, or economic status—has the right to spaces where they can be healthy, active, and engaged. Communities thrive when individuals have this right. Inclusive health is an important step in achieving this goal.