Express press service

CHENNAI: Nethrodaya, a self-help organization for the visually impaired, houses a well-planned infrastructure with tactile floor markings, ramps and spacious areas divided into a library, dining room, computer lab and study rooms. ‘study. With that in mind, I entered the building to take a look at their newly inaugurated disabled gym, hoping – perhaps ignorantly – to see a specialized facility that dwarfs the other rooms.

However, the gym bore an unexpected resemblance to any other fitness center. So the question arose: What makes this option more disability-friendly than the others? Founder and visually impaired C Govindakrishnan sheds light on how, in his experience, discouragement from visiting fitness centers is often more about stigma and accessibility than specialized equipment for the visually impaired.

“Several gyms don’t welcome us, asking us not to bring visually impaired people and claiming that it’s too risky (for them to be there). They say they don’t want us there despite any assurances we could provide regarding payment. Why not create a gym, we asked ourselves? We decided not to bring any new devices for the visually impaired. We wanted to create a platform for them where they can adapt to existing equipment, train, improve and become equal,” he shares. But, there are still changes that could be introduced in the infrastructure, he adds. it, like the auditory broadcast of metrics like distance traveled and fat burned.

The gym can accommodate four or five people at a time (who are recommended to work out for 45 minutes each) and has been under construction for several years. Govindakrishnan collected the equipment one by one to ensure the best for the members and make a strong statement that they too can use the gym without fear. Nethrodaya members have taken advantage of this facility, it seems. Un Selvamani, an IAS aspirant at the institution, says, “I’ve always had an interest in fitness. But in the many hostels I have stayed in, we were never able to get the equipment despite asking for it. Here, I can access it whenever I want. In other centers it might become uncomfortable for us. We want to do our own thing, have a comfortable space, and not have to search for things or ask for help. If someone is on a piece of equipment, you (as a able-bodied person) can see it and do something else, but we can’t tell. So here we don’t need to find anyone and can communicate with each other (because we are not strangers).

Varied needs

However, not all people with disabilities have the same requirements, recalls Preethi Srinivasan, the co-founder of Soulfree, a charity for people with severe disabilities. While people with visual impairments may want Braille instructions or someone with knowledge to guide them, people in wheelchairs have very specific needs. There are two major requirements to be met: first, accessibility to the gymnasium and second, sufficient equipment that can be used by a person in a wheelchair. This may require an investment in the right type of device. “For example, constantly moving treadmills can cause a paralyzed person a lot of stress. At Soulfree INSPIRE (a rehabilitation center in Thiruvannamalai), we have an imported treadmill, the belt of which only moves when the sensors detect that the second foot has been placed forward. These are specialized equipment that people do not release. There has been no effort, in my experience, to accommodate people in wheelchairs in fitness centers,” says the former quadriplegic athlete.

However, the adoption of specialized equipment in every gym seems like a distant dream when even basic accessibility is still an issue. From the lack of ramps to an abundance of steps, the system seems to be difficult at the most basic levels. For Suresh Giri K, a polio sufferer and marketing professional, the Nethrodaya gym seemed like the best option: “Each gym is on the first or second floor. Even when there are elevators available, there are one or two steps down to the basement or the entrance. While his early experiences in the gym were enjoyable with lots of help from coaches and management, it’s not a one-size-fits-all experience.

“I visited a well-known swimming pool to learn the sport. There they didn’t allow me, because we (people with disabilities) were walking or wandering in their space, needed privacy, needed someone to support us,” he informs. And that attitude, he thinks, stems from the commercialization of these centers. Commercial minds don’t think about people with disabilities, Suresh observes, adding that if the government or organizations like Nethrodaya start these efforts and raise awareness of these options, we might find more people with disabilities coming in. Preethi agrees, adding that despite options such as darts, archery boards and table tennis being available and accessible to people with disabilities, no one seems to think of such things.

For the hearing impaired, although physical access or sight is not an issue, the lack of empathy and trained staff still proves to be a challenge, shares R Selvarani, Director of Physical Education at Dr MGR Janaki College of Arts and Science. “User-friendly equipment with instructions for use, instructors trained in sign language, private spaces for those who may be sensitive to music, and alternatives to training with music (could make a difference). Trainers should also receive lessons on how to work with people who are hard of hearing,” recommends Selvarani.

Sporting the truth

Where gyms and fitness centers falter, sports complexes don’t seem to impress either. National level basketball player Malathi Raja, still perseveres for the sport against all odds. “In our sports complex, they only let us use the outdoor pitch. Its rough nature not suitable for our wheelchairs; even a stone can puncture the tire. If we puncture them, we have no one to replace them. And we only get the court from 9am to 11am. Also, we don’t have a proper toilet, so we have to wear diapers.

And we depend on the smallest things,” she laments. As an athlete, Malathi also ensures good upper body fitness, but since her gym lift was inaccessible for almost a year, she decided to buy household equipment like dumbbells, a medicine -ball, TheraBand and more instead of paying the same Rs 13,000 for a gym membership where she can’t use half the equipment. Although she has her restrictions, Malathi singles out district players on her team who face an uphill battle without the facilities that a metropolis like Chennai can provide. “Some players can only train during tournaments. Disabled basketball is just beginning in India but despite winning at the national level, our requests for small things like ramps are still denied,” he mentions. -she.

Fit for a reason

For people with disabilities, the need for fitness is just as vital as for any able-bodied person, if not more so. But recognition of this is hard to come by. “Why do you need this?” You give food, clothes and education, it’s not good for raising funds,” hears Govindakrishnan, who has been ridiculed and says that only a pathetic image of an NGO can command funds. But people with disabilities are not animals to be fed, he transmits with passion. “People don’t want to get involved in training sessions because they think it’s an afterthought. But I suggest that people pay attention to this issue and create these facilities in their centers as well. This gym is a model and should be replicated.

Physical fitness improves the mental and physical strength of people in wheelchairs, for whom the early years can be difficult to manage, as Preethi mentions: “In India, many disabled people go into debt to get treatment. So they don’t know what to do when they come home from the hospital. When you have a severe physical impairment, you gain a lot of weight and you can’t afford to eat like you used to. When your own body stops cooperating, many go into bouts of depression, anger, and resentment. I look at my body and I don’t even recognize myself anymore. At this point, the only pleasant thing is food and if you can’t even have it, what’s the point of living? Many develop obesity and comorbidities within the first year. The lack of movement also slows the capacity of the intestines and increases bloating. Then, staying in shape becomes crucial.

Perhaps the increase in these fitness centers would also be a boon for the next generation, hopes Malathi. As someone who embraced the sport after her disability, she found it could renew the way society looks at you. “Before basketball, I had a completely different mindset. I felt like I was of no use to anyone and I had an inferiority complex. Now people don’t see me as a person with a disability, but like a player,” she says. One ramp, one working lift, one skilled coach, one empathetic gesture, one small change could make a big change.

  • Soulfree INSPIRE is located at Old GH Compound, SH6, Bavaji Nagar, Thamarai Nagar, Tiruvannamalai. Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Nethrodaya is located at 47/1, Bharathi Salai, Mogappair West, Ambattur Industrial Estate. Hours: 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.