In a world that often prioritizes aesthetics and athleticism, it’s crucial to recognize that the concept of fitness extends far beyond the confines of a gym or the glossy pages of fitness magazines. True accessibility & fitness is about inclusivity, empowerment, and accessibility for all. In our ever-evolving understanding of health and well-being, the fitness industry finds itself at a pivotal juncture where the focus is shifting towards ensuring that everyone, regardless of their physical abilities, can participate, thrive, and benefit from physical activity.

This paradigm shift brings to the forefront the compelling intersection of accessibility and fitness. Beyond the sweat and determination that characterizes the fitness journey lies a profound need to tear down the barriers that have long prevented individuals with diverse abilities from enjoying the countless benefits of an active lifestyle. From adaptive equipment to inclusive programming, the fitness world is embracing a holistic approach that empowers individuals of all backgrounds and abilities to find their path towards wellness.

Adversity is something that no one can escape. We all face it at some point in our lives. In 2012, I thought I had reached my quota of adversity seeing as in January I turned thirty, in April I left my ex-husband after a violent altercation, in June my dad left, then three weeks later (on Friday the 13th) I was paralyzed by a virus while on vacation in Las Vegas with my friends. 2012 truly was the worst year of my life, but it also put me on the path I’m on now and I wouldn’t trade it for anything…well maybe to have my functioning body back ha-ha.

Learning how to live life in a wheelchair comes with a steep learning curve, without a handbook. One of the biggest issues I have faced in my five years of being a wheelchair user is ACCESSIBILITY, or the lack of it in YEG. Accessibility has a different definition to different people so trying to make the city accessible to all is a great feat, but we are on the right path. I’ve learned that the older parts of the city (Whyte Ave, downtown and 124 st) are far more difficult to navigate due to the age of the buildings, stairs, lack of curb cuts, and a steep slope on some sidewalks. Years ago, accessibility wasn’t in building code requirements so older areas got grandfathered in, meaning anyone with mobility issues will have a hard time accessing those businesses. A lot of the barriers in these areas of the city can be removed by simply adding a ramp, a power-assist door and welcoming people of all abilities.

Being a paraplegic, I have full use of my arms so when a business doesn’t have a power-assist door I don’t think twice about it as I can manage to get in and out on my own. My quadriplegic friends who have limited hand/arm function don’t have that luxury making the power-assist door essential. It is expensive but if you’re a business owner know, that something this simple can increase your inclusivity, making your business accessible to ALL.

The first winter after my paralysis was truly an eye opening experience. When I was able-bodied I didn’t think twice about snow removal being an issue. Like most of you I would just step over the snow or ice, climb over the windrows and jump over the curb cuts that were piled high with snow from the graters. I would never complain about my neighbours if they didn’t clear the walks properly, but now my mobility is dependent on other people’s snow removal. Residential snow removal is one thing but commercial snow removal is another. Many times I’ve arrived at the gym, yoga or a shopping centre where the parking lot has not been cleared. Often, I would be so irritated I would just go home but now I have found my voice and will call the business from the parking lot and ask them to help me inside. They usually come outside with a shovel and the response “I’m so sorry, I didn’t even think about that” and it’s true, most people don’t think about accessibility until they themselves or someone close to them have mobility issues.

I’ve always been active and conscious about my health. I was in kickboxing, yoga, weight training and I loved running the stairs in the river valley, it took me a few years to gain the confidence to get back into these things and of course they all had to be adapted to my needs. Boxing and weight training were an easy fix as the UFC Gym in Sherwood Park welcomed me with open arms and helped adapt their Fight Fit class as well as move some equipment around so I could fit between them in my wheelchair. Finding an inclusive yoga studio was a nightmare. I did hot yoga for five years before I was paralyzed so I called the studios I used to go to and told them my situation, the response I received from numerous yoga studios was “sorry but we cannot accommodate your wheelchair in the studio” or “I’m sorry I’m not sure what you’re looking for or if we can help you here.” The barrier I felt in the yoga community is an easy one to fix by simply starting the conversation with “I’m not sure I understand what your needs are but if you could come in and explain it to me and talk to one of the teachers we would be more than happy to help you.” Being open and treating everyone equally will have a ripple effect in the community. One person CAN make a difference.

Edmonton has come a long way towards making the city accessible but we still have a long way to go. Physical barriers are all over the city and need to be addressed and changed so that ALL people can access the city’s amenities year round. One of these barriers is the pay stations in parking lots across the city. Many of them are on concrete platforms with rocks around them making them inaccessible to anyone unable to step up onto the platform. If you can get to the machine the problem most of us face is the screen being above our head, if you’re looking up at it, there is often a glare from the sun or lights making it impossible to read the prompts. There are a few positives to parking at EPark meters and city parking lots. The City of Edmonton allows any vehicle displaying a valid disabled placard to park at a parking meter for free for the duration of the meter.  For example, one hour free at a one-hour time limit meter.

One thing I have learned is that any activity or sport can be adapted; you just need a little creativity and patience. By making your sport/facility inclusive and accessible you are helping to break down the barriers and change the stigma affecting people with disabilities. If you need assistance in adapting your program the non-profit organization that I co-founded with my trainer/business partner, Nancy Morrow, ReYu Paralysis Recovery Centre is more than happy to help and offer advice.

By Benveet (Bean) Gill – ReYu Paralysis Recovery Centre