Exercise for people with intellectual disabilities

Everyone has the right to enjoy exercise and experience the feeling of belonging that comes from being part of a team or class, write Carol Syer and Caitlin Syer.


  • Many people with a disability have never experienced running, riding a bike, working out at a gym, taking part in group fitness or playing sport
  • People with intellectual disabilities face barriers to education, social isolation, and a constant fight for inclusion
  • Fitness facilities can offer classes and programs that provide a fun, safe environment in which those with an intellectual disability can be active and experience the sense of belonging that comes from being part of a team or class
  • Employing someone with an intellectual disability can change your life as well as theirs, and will also make your facility better reflect society, making it more appealing to others with disabilities.

I love that feeling at the end of a really hard run or cycle, when you look down at your watch and you’ve done a great personal time, or the satisfying ache in your legs after you’ve climbed a high mountain. For me, nothing compares – that awesome buzz is one of my drugs of choice. The other is the equally high feeling I get as an instructor when I’ve just finished teaching a group exercise class and know by the participants’ faces and the energy in the room that I nailed it. You’ll have experienced the same thing. How rewarding is it to see the positive changes in your clients and know you were instrumental in creating positive experiences?

Picture your life with different abilities

But what about someone that isn’t able to do these things. Have you ever thought about what it must be like to never have experienced running, riding a bike, going to a gym, taking part in group fitness or playing any sport? For many people with a disability this is a reality.

Imagine how different your life would be if you were born with a disability. I actually don’t have to imagine too hard because, although I have not been born with a disability myself, throughout my life I have experienced the challenges that such a condition has posed for those closest to me: my older sister, who has an intellectual disability (ID), and my daughter, Caitlin, who has both an ID and dyspraxia (a disorder of movement and coordination that can affect motor, verbal and oral skills).

How inclusive is our industry?

With over 4.3 million Australians living with a disability, and ID being the most common primary disability, our industry should be doing a lot more to cater for this group of people.

So, what would that even look like? Take a moment to reflect on the fitness facility you manage or work at, and ask the following questions:
  • Is it accessible and equipped for people with disabilities?
  • Does it have many patrons with a disability?
  • Are the needs of people with a disability factored in when designing programs?
  • Are the needs of this population considered when advertising or promoting the facility or programs, both internally and externally?
  • Have you ever considered who might not be using the facility?

Walking a path unchosen

For a person with an ID, not long after you are born, you embark on a journey over which you have little control. Society has already started to dictate your place and how you will be treated.

The start of school, when Facebook feeds fill with proud parental snaps of kids dressed for their first day, is not such a positive time for everyone.

If you’re lucky, you may attend a mainstream kindergarten, but even if this is the case, your experience is unlikely to resemble that of the other children and their parents. If you live with an ID, your school life will involve not being invited on playdates and being excluded from the birthday parties that all the other children attend, something that breaks a parent’s heart, week after week, year after year.

For many children with ID though, regular schools aren’t their destination: this is the age at which they will start to be segregated from the rest of society as they are sent to a special school. By this stage, the battle for funding is well and truly under way for the families, who find themselves in a continual round of special meetings and fights for funding, as well as for their child’s right to be educated, included in activities, and treated with respect.

By the end of primary school, either mainstream or special, the whole family has learnt to fight. When you have a child with a disability, you spend your whole life in a constant battle for your child’s rights. It’s exhausting, but there really is no other option.

If primary education is a challenge, secondary school poses a truly terrifying prospect. What options are available for a child with an ID? Will they fit in? Will they be teased and bullied? And will the school provide the support the need? The high school years can be difficult enough as it is, but for those with disabilities, it’s a whole other level. The fact is, many mainstream schools lack the skills and resources needed to accommodate people with intellectual disabilities, and are often not an option. Choice is very limited, and we, like many parents in our situation, chose a special education setting.

Leaving school without year 12 means university, college and many courses are not open to you. This makes the prospect of employment very unlikely. Decades ago, very few people went to university, and many jobs didn’t require a higher education. As uni attendance has become more commonplace, so have qualification requirements for many roles. As such, the low level of education attained by people with an ID is even more notable – and employment even harder to come by. Without a job, people with an ID are also without money, and as such are much more likely to live in poverty. In fact, Australia has a very poor record and is ranked last of all OECD countries when it comes to relative poverty risk for people with a disability. As an Australian, I find this embarrassing.

Both my daughter Caitlin and my sister work in mainstream jobs, but this really is, sadly, quite unusual for a person with an ID. In fact, Caitlin has two jobs, working at the Department of Premier and Cabinet and at YMCA, Dandenong – proof that, with persistence, the barriers can be broken down.

The role of physical activity

You may be wondering what all this has to do with fitness, with gyms, with you. In order to understand how to be more inclusive, and why it’s important, you need to understand the barriers to education and employment, the social isolation, and the constant fight to be included that someone with a disability encounters.

Throughout their schooling, a child with an ID will find it very hard to find a sport or physical activity in which they are able to fully participate. Many sports are competitive and age-based, which disadvantages or excludes them.

Watching Caitlin’s struggles, and bearing witness to the lack of inclusion in sporting areas, led me to create inclusive fitness programs for the fitness facilities I oversee. Our classes offer a fun, safe environment in which those with an ID can enjoy being active and have the opportunity to move without competition or judgement. I believe everyone has the right to enjoy exercise and experience the feeling of belonging that comes from being part of a team or class.

Progress, but further to go

Life for a person with an ID is a fight, buts it’s certainly not all negative: there are huge achievements, happy times and, in many respects, an ordinary life. They certainly won’t be feeling sorry for themselves and they are used to barriers, so much so that they expect to encounter them.

In the 1950s and 1960s, people with IDs were locked away in institutions. We now live in more enlightened times, and things have dramatically improved – but are we doing enough?

Is it acceptable to isolate people with an ID into special education settings, away from mainstream students who don’t get to grow up with, and learn acceptance for, them? If all kids went to kinder and school together, and played sport together, even if it meant dividing up for lessons, wouldn’t we all learn from each other? There would be less being afraid of what to say or do, as it would become the new normal to have a society of mixed abilities studying, working and playing together. If 1 in 5 people in Australia have a disability, then shouldn’t 20% of our friends, 20% of our members and 20% of our staff have disabilities?

Your challenge

I challenge you to look around your workplace, your fitness space, and note what – or rather who – you see. If it’s only people that look like you, why?

Befriend someone with a disability, and if appropriate, offer your training services to them. You will be amazed by what you’ve been missing out on. This is a chance to slow down, have some fun, enjoy conversations, share the excitement of a participant mastering a new skill, and witness the smiles on the faces of people feeling huge joy at simply being included. Learning to include everyone in your workouts will improve your communication skills, make you a sought-after trainer, open up new pathways and give you a new appreciation of what it means to be fit and healthy.

If you are in a position to do so, employ someone with a disability. This will not only change their life, but yours too. Additionally, your workplace will more accurately reflect society, and when people with a disability are reflected in the workplace, they will be more likely to patronise your business. Team up with a local TAFE that runs courses for students with disabilities and establish your fitness business as a potential first step into employment, either through a paid role or via work experience. You can contact your local and state government to enquire about grants to assist your business in funding positions for people with an ID, and Disability Sport and Recreation may also be able to offer assistance in the form of information and connections.

With regards the NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme), it is worth noting that it is specifically for people with significant disabilities. Of the over 4 million Australians living with disabilities, the scheme will be able to fund only around 10% of these. Despite this limited reach, the NDIS has had the positive effect of making business operators more aware of people with disabilities, and prompting them to start looking at what they can do to provide access and change services to suit.

By making your fitness facility accessible, creating appropriate programs, and educating your staff, colleagues, friends and family on how to be more inclusive of those with an ID, you will enrich the lives of everybody concerned and position yourselves to welcome the 20% of the population that you may have inadvertently been excluding until this point.

Carol Syer
With 31 years’ industry experience, Carol is a passionate group exercise instructor as well as the Program Coordinator for Active Monash, a role in which she oversees programs for older adults, children, teens, those with chronic conditions, and people with a disability. monash.vic.gov.au/Leisure

Caitlin Syer
Caitlin is 24 years old and lives with an intellectual disability and dyspraxia. Currently employed as an assistant at Department of Premier and Cabinet and at YMCA Dandenong Oasis, she also sits on the Disability Advisory Committee for Knox Council and is active in advocacy.