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Beyond Ramps: The journey to active lifestyles for People with Disabilities (PwDs)

As a physiotherapist, I've had the privilege of journeying with many amazing individuals and their families, witnessing how exercise and rehabilitation can help to transform lives. I’ve always been a strong believer in the continuity of an active lifestyle after discharging from medical facilities. 


The books tell us - remember to give advice on active lifestyles, remember to prescribe a home exercise program! It’s easy to say, “Remember to continue with your exercises when you’re home!”, or “You should check out your neighbourhood gym to stay active!”. But the truth is, staying active doesn’t look the same for everyone. However, staying active isn't a one-size-fits-all approach. What's crucial is that accessibility to physical activity should be universal, regardless of one's abilities.


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I’ve learnt many things from my clients and their caregivers over the years. One of which is that the pursuit of an active lifestyle for a Person with Disability (PwD) is not as simple as it seems. While we’ve been incredibly blessed with the generally flat and forgiving urban terrain in Singapore, there are many other invisible challenges that a PwD and their caregivers may face:


1. Awareness is key


Exercise and physical activity are essential for maintaining overall health and well-being. They are vital for individuals of all abilities, including PwDs. Being able to continue an active lifestyle after discharge from a medical facility ensures that the gains from rehabilitation will not be lost. Regular exercise helps to sustain and build on the progress made during rehabilitation, thus preventing regression and promoting long-term health and independence. This good habit also plays a role in managing secondary health conditions like cardiovascular disease, obesity, and musculoskeletal issues. It further contributes to reducing stress, improving mood, and enhancing cognitive function. This has shown to be particularly beneficial for individuals facing the unique challenges and stressors associated with living with a disability. Adaptive sports is a fun way for PwDs to stay active, and experience the benefits as discussed above!


Having the right attitude towards an active lifestyle for People with Disabilities is critical - it’s not just the PwDs themselves, but also for their caregivers, the people around them, as well as other key stakeholders that come together to facilitate a suitable environment for the pursuit of an active lifestyle! Education and awareness initiatives play a pivotal role in breaking down the misconceptions there may be regarding exercise for a PwD. It can be as simple as providing information about equipment in the gym facility, demonstrating inclusive exercises, as well as fostering understanding and enthusiasm among all involved parties. I recall what a para-athlete friend once shared with me, “Hospitality should not be confused with pity”. At the end of the day, we’re all humans hoping to get a good workout, and lead an active lifestyle!


2. Support from the community


Policies and legislation can also help to advocate for strong accessibility standards and enforcement, evident in Singapore’s Enabling Masterplan 2030 and Disability Sports Master Plan. By pushing for these changes at the institutional and regulatory levels, a foundation can be built for a more inclusive environment where PwDs can engage in physical activities with greater ease and comfort.


Tailored programs are also essential in catering to the diverse needs and abilities of individuals with disabilities. It is important to work with a guide that has the expertise to adapt programs effectively, ensuring they are both accessible and beneficial for PwDs. As with any fitness journey, the guide should be someone who understands the PwD’s needs, and journeys towards a collaborative goal! 


To support these stakeholders on the ground, it is important to have the proper training and education to share more about inclusive practices. This can help to empower professionals cater effectively to the diverse needs of their PwD clients, and enhance the overall quality of care and services provided to PwDs pursuing active lifestyles. Such trainings can be supported by community partnerships from various disability organisations and advocacy groups. It then becomes a collective effort to address the invisible barriers, and create environments that foster inclusivity, so as to ensure that PwDs have the support and resources they need to pursue and maintain their active lifestyles.


3. It’s not just about ramps


Barrier-free access is not just about fitness facilities and equipments. There are many other physical barriers that can be overlooked, including the route to the gym, or positioning of the equipments in the gym. The door may be wide enough, but heavy swing doors just don’t cut it for an independent wheelchair user. A variety of weights, including lighter ones, may be useful, but not everyone may have an adequate grip for using dumbbells safely. 


There may also be financial barriers, including the cost of specialised equipment, transportation, and personal assistance. These barriers create additional layers of difficulty, making it more challenging for PwDs to access the resources and support they need to engage in regular physical activity. 


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Conclusion:


To support PwDs in their pursuit of active lifestyles, we must go beyond the obvious physical barriers to address the holistic needs and challenges they face. By promoting inclusivity, raising awareness, and implementing proactive strategies, we can create environments where all individuals have the opportunity to engage in meaningful rehabilitation and exercise programs, regardless of their abilities. Exercise is important, and important for everyone, so we can all play our part to ensure that no one is left behind in the pursuit of health and well-being. If you know someone who would like to get active, drop us an email today at hello@thrivehealthcare.com.sg

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