People with Disabilities Face Challenges Nationwide in Many Commercial Gyms

By Nicole Indelicato |

On a Friday evening, a little before 5:30, Brian Pollack, 20, changes into a black tank top and white athletic shorts and waits patiently for Suzanne Welsh to arrive at his home in Merrick, N.Y. At 5:33 p.m., she arrives and greets him with a smile.

After some small talk, the two venture off to Pollack’s fully finished basement. A flat-screen TV, a coffee-colored couch adorned with a New York Yankees pillow and a pool table are all fixtures of the room, but Pollack and Welsh turn their attention to the other side of the basement – the side stocked with an array of colored dumbbell weights, an exercise bike and a Bowflex machine.

Pollack hops on the cardio bike and places his feet on the pedals.

“All right, let’s start at five, we won’t go all the way up yet,” Welsh says, taping on the bike’s speedometer. “Ready?”

Pollack nods and exhales vigorously.

Welsh is a personal trainer. Once a week, she comes to train Pollack, who has high-functioning autism and suffers from learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder. Welsh is one of nine personal trainers who work for HOPEFitness, a gym that claims to be the first and only stand-alone commercial fitness facility in New York that focuses on people with mental and physical disabilities and is also open to the public. HOPEFitness trainers also travel to homes like Pollack’s, day habilitation facilities, camps and group homes to work with clients.

Suzanne Welsh, a certified personal trainer at HOPEFitness, and Brian Pollack, 20, who has high-functioning autism and attention deficit disorder, at Pollack’s home in Merrick, N.Y. on March 18, 2011. Welsh travels to Pollack’s home once a week to help him exercise. “She’s just a great person to exercise with because she helped me through a lot of the workouts that I thought that I couldn’t get done,” Pollack said.

“We tried a local gym and it didn’t fit Brian because of his special needs,” said Pollack’s father, Harvey. “They didn’t know how to cater to him in a way that we are now getting with HOPEFitness. In a regular gym, they’re not going to understand all the giving positive reinforcement that a person like Brian needs to keep going forward and getting better.”

Pollack, who sought a gym to lose weight he had gained from his behavioral medications, a common side effect, has thinned out, improved his upper-body strength and gained muscle definition from his nearly three years of training with HOPEFitness. But he is one of the lucky ones. Pollack is one of 50 million Americans – or one in five – who suffer from some sort of mental, emotional or physical disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But data suggest that 56 percent of adults with a disability reported no leisure-time physical activity, compared to 36 percent of people without a disability, according to Healthy People 2010, a document released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

While much of the population has the luxury of choosing whichever fitness facility they want, options are more limited for people with disabilities. Finding the right gym and a trainer who suits their needs takes research and trial and error. And though national efforts have been made to bring awareness to the importance of physical fitness for people with disabilities, and some gyms are making attempts to foster a more inclusive atmosphere, many still have a long way to go — despite the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act more than 20 years ago.

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