Accessible fitness for visually impaired clients – FitPro Interview
Meet Michelle Felix, a fitness professional who is registered blind and provides audio-described exercise for clients who are blind or have poor eyesight.
FitPro: Can you tell us more about your personal story and when you first began devising fitness classes for visually impaired individuals?
Michelle Felix: I am registered blind and have some residual vision. The diagnosis is macular degeneration, which is loss of central vision but that allows us to see details. My company is Michelle Felix Group and I specialise in optimising fitness and well-being for clients with disabilities. My key focus is providing audio-described exercise for clients who are blind or have low vision and it’s been a real joy providing this service since 2015.
FP: What was your career before entering into this area of the fitness industry?
MF: Before working in the fitness industry, my occupation was in corporate customer relations for 19 years. In 2014, I was made redundant (medically retired). Following my redundancy, I engaged in the InstructAbility programme, which seeks to train more people with disabilities to work in the fitness industry as positive role models to engage more people with disabilities to take part in physical activities.
FP: What classes in particular do you offer? You also offer an at-home session; is that correct?
MF: The classes I offer are: dance fitness, gentle exercise, over 60s and indoor cycling. At present, these classes are accessed through organisations with disabled clients, service users or employees; and bookings are for 10 or 20 weeks. Summer 2017 will mark the launch of direct access classes in which clients can book to enjoy the benefits of tailored classes on an ongoing basis.
Yes, I do provide an at-home service for people who find it difficult to get out to exercise and for people who simply prefer exercising in the comfort of their own home. This can be one-to-one or in a small group.
FP: Can you tell us a bit more about your partnership with Clubbercise?
MF: At the request of Claire Burlison Green, Clubbercise founder and brand director, I worked with Sam James, the Clubbercise disability pro trainer, to adapt Clubbercise dance fitness to chair-based exercise. Sam and I first showcased the adapted Clubbercise format at Leisure Industry Week at Birmingham National Exhibition Centre in 2015. I have engaged with Claire and the Clubbercise choreography team who are now more aware of best practice for inclusive choreography design.
FP: What did you consider from your own experiences when devising the classes? Had you attended any classes previously which inspired your offerings or made you think about things differently?
MF: Being a VIP (visually impaired person), I experienced a lack of fitness classes accessible to my impairment because staff lacked visual awareness and classes had traditional structures. Speaking to VIP members of various online groups and VIP attendees of events, I found that people were stating that they wanted to attend keep-fit classes but could not find a class that catered for their needs. So I decided to create a bespoke VIP-friendly exercise environment, providing audio description, spatial awareness and class structure that is sensitive and responsive to the needs of VIPs.
Inspiration came from Fya Stead, my first salsa teacher, who taught salsa by using names of movements. I translated this into instructing exercise to music. Ahead of cueing, if a movement is new and innovative and does not have a name, I give it a name and teach it alongside classic dance fitness moves. Once the moves are associated with a name, the name becomes a cue that can be easily followed by my clients who are blind or have low vision.
I have experienced severe upper limb disorder and myalgia, which affected my mobility and range of movement. Before and during classes I highlight to my clients who are mobility challenged that we need to move within our own capabilities and that movement in itself is an achievement that can progress over time.
I am a disabled mother with a non-disabled daughter who want to engage in activities together. My experience of only finding family activities for when the child – not the parent – is disabled led me to offer family group exercise sessions. I intrinsically design my sessions to create the sense of a journey with spatial discovery as part of a full-body workout.
FP: Who is in your team and what expertise do they bring with them?
MF: Richard is a company director and he provides IT support and sound engineering for our PA system. Siobhan and Hannah take care of general admin and are part of my welcome party. Emmanuel looks after our book-keeping and accounts. Fay is my support worker and is responsible for spotting (describing how participants look, so that I can decide if an individual is adopting a harmful technique, is unwell or in discomfort during classes). Fay also assists with the visuals of printed forms and membership cards and processes payments.
I’m about to launch a recruitment campaign for fitness professionals to join the team, and I’m currently speaking with interested parties. I have a peer advisory board – Gro Your Biz (www.groyourbiz.com)
FP: What training have you undergone to work in the fitness industry?
Through InstructAbility I gained my Level 2 Gym Instructor qualification and Level 3 Exercise and Disability qualifications. Following my completion of the InstructAbility programme, I continued my professional development within the fitness industry to include my Exercise to Music qualification, and dance fitness training consisting of:
- Pound Fit – Choreographed drumming with lightly weighted drumsticks (poundfit.com);
- Clubbercise – dance fitness with disco lights and glow sticks (clubbercise.com);
- Globe Fit – incorporating dance styles from all over the world (www.globefit.co.uk).
I am also trained to deliver core stability, suspension fitness and indoor cycling.
Specialist training and qualifications to compliment my Exercise and Disability qualification are:
- Teen gym;
- Over 60’s exercise – (seated, supported and standing);
- Exercise referral – near completion, which will enable me to further specialise in assisting clients who have been referred to exercise by their medical practitioner.
I have undertaken training in health and safety essentials, essential risk assessment, safeguarding adults, safeguarding children and young people I have also gained certification in emergency first aid.
FP: What did you find particularly beneficial about the InstructAbility course?
MF: It was lovely to be in the InstructAbility learning environment where disability is not an issue. Adjustments were happily made for each of our individual needs as students, inside the classroom, in the gym environment and also in terms of accessible home study course material. Our InstructAbility tutors fostered a comfortable learning environment in which we were relaxed and felt free to ask questions and they always treated us with respect.
FP: Where does your offering sit in the fitness industry? Are there many other businesses out there that offer similar services?
MF: There are organisations led by blind people who offer services that compliment my classes. I am happy to partner in joint ventures with fellow organisations. An example of this is my engagement with Metro Blind Sport (www.metroblindsport.org) in the delivery of a visual awareness event at Lloyds of London (www.lloyds.com).
FP: What are clients most surprised by? What has their feedback been? Has there been a bigger uptake for one class in particular?
MF: Clients have been most surprised by discovering their ability to enjoy and successfully take part in group exercise, which I have made possible by using audio description. My clients have been amazed at their personal fitness progress and improved sense of well-being.
FP: Can you tell us a bit more about the consultation process and what’s involved before a client can embark on training with you?
MF: We begin with a welcome session and an introduction and outline of the consultation process. Ahead of the consultation, I start with a PAR-Q (physical activity readiness questionnaire) to ascertain whether the client needs to consult their GP before embarking on an exercise programme. This can be summarised as follows:
- In view of medical and lifestyle information, ascertain why the client wishes to embark on an exercise programme.
- Establish eye condition, any additional disabilities any side effects of any medication taken and how each of these factors have a bearing on the client.
- Establish the client’s preferred format for written communications, which may be electronic, large print or Braille, and note their preference for support communications between sessions – telephone, Skype or email.
- Take the essential range of physical measurements, ensuring that resting heart rate and blood pressure is within safe parameters.
Establishing client’s current fitness level and carrying out functional fitness testing (when appropriate).
- Note activity history and client preferences agreeing goals which must be SMARTER (specific, measurable, achievable, time-framed, enjoyable, resourced).
- Establishing motivation levels, exploring how this can be boosted and any barriers to achieving fitness goals and how these may be overcome.
- After completing the questions, we’ll agree a timetable of activities.
FP: Do you receive any funding or support? Do you think there is an overall lack of services for visually impaired individuals?
MF: I have self-funded my business and seek to extend partnerships. Statistics from the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) show that there are more than 2 million people in the UK with sight loss and around 360,000 people registered with their local authority as blind or partially sighted. Employment services in the main are led by non-specialist pan-disability organisations in the public and private sector, many of which are facing cuts. However, charities such as RNIB (www.rnib.org.uk) and Thomas Pocklington Trust (http://www.pocklington-trust.org.uk) make a huge contribution to aiding visually impaired people to find and stay in suitable jobs.
In England it is estimated there are 34,500 children and young people with levels of vision that warrant support. There are only 12 specialist schools for blind and partially sighted learners in the UK. Fewer than 1,000 learners are supported by these schools. We have six specialist visual impairment further education colleges in the UK, all of which are in England.
Services for people who are visually impaired have been gradually increasing over time. As well as the need for specialist services for VIPs, I believe in the social model of disability and would encourage all manufactures and service providers to consider accessibility for all disabilities when reviewing and designing products and services. In the fitness industry, accessible design mainly focuses on wheelchair users with some inclusion for partially sighted people with easy-to-see yellow levers for adjustments on cardio machines. Some gym machines have tactile buttons, which are useful for all VIP’s.
I am very passionate about the need for accessible gym equipment. Rica, a UK research charity (www.rica.org.uk) that helps businesses to improve their services for older and disabled customers, is working in partnership with local London charity Metro Blind Sport (www.metroblindsport.org). Together, Rica and Metro Blind Sport are researching inclusive gym equipment – running machines, step trainers and exercise bikes – to find out which ones are particularly accessible for people who are blind and partially sighted. A vital part of the research will be to consider the usability of the screen interfaces on electronic fitness equipment and also the possibility of voice output, which will benefit many other users of gym equipment. Rica is really keen to talk to product manufacturers to understand the barriers and difficulties that companies face when designing inclusive design features that would make it easier for more people to use the gym equipment screens and interfaces. I am supporting this project.
How did people react to Michelle’s classes?
James Cook from Chingford said:
‘’I had taken part in group exercise in the past but not successfully and I did not enjoy them. Before Michelle’s chair-based exercise classes I was stiff but I found Michelle’s classes quite useful and I would recommend her classes to friends.’’
Olive from Walthamstow said:
“I struggled in pain getting dressed before going to Michelle’s gentle exercise classes. I felt great during and after the exercise and would 100% recommend Michelle’s classes to others.”
Michelle Felix – CEO and Founder, Michelle Felix Group
Interview by Fitpro Blog