Surfer Bethany Hamilton On the Importance of Creating Inclusive Environments for Adaptive Athletes

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For folks with disabilities, going to the gym isn't always a pleasant experience. In fact, 81 percent of disabled or adoptive athletes do not feel welcomed in fitness spaces, according to a recent study from Degree Deoderant and the Lakeshore Foundation, a nonprofit that specializes in sports science for athletes with disabilities.

The alarming results of this study prompted Degree to ignite change within the fitness industry by creating a new initiative to help disabled and adaptive fitness professionals find jobs in their field. Degree's #TrainersForHire program invites differently-abled trainers to advertise their specialties online, in addition to where they're located in the U.S. Degree is also offering an online toolkit for companies, fitness brands, and individuals to download so that they can grow their understanding about accessibility and learn how to make their fitness spaces more inclusive, too.

"As a brand, Degree believes no one should be held back from experiencing the transformative benefits of movement. That's why we're fighting for a world where everyone has the confidence to move. With #TrainersforHire, our mission is to advocate for more diverse champions of movement and challenge societal ability standards. We hope to remind the fitness industry – and beyond – that everyone deserves the freedom to move, whoever you are, however you move," said Kathryn Swallow, global brand vice president of Degree, in a September press release.

To help spread the word about Degree's #TrainersForHire initiative, the company teamed with eight-time Paralympic track and field medalist Blake Leeper and professional surfer Bethany Hamilton. Ahead of National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October, Leeper hosted an inclusive, outdoor spin class in New York City, which welcomed spin enthusiasts of all abilities and provided proper adaptive equipment on-site for rides with disabilities. (Related: People Are Calling Nike's Hands-Free Sneakers a Game-Changer for Athletes with Disabilities)

"It's extremely important that we have disabled trainers in the fitness spaces to show everyone that it's actually doable!" said Leeper in a statement. "We want to show gyms everywhere to realize that you can put both a crank cycle and regular cycle in one room and have an overall inclusive experience…it can be done! I think that's the first step, and if they ask, 'how can it work?' We'll tell them, 'we'll show you how to do it, just follow our footsteps.'"

As for Hamilton, she knows firsthand the power of working alongside disabled and adaptive athletes. "I've experienced judgment and maybe a little bit of discrimination firsthand against my ability as an athlete," Hamilton tells Shape. "I'm thrilled to partner with Degree and cheer on healthy change in the fitness industry and to increase representation of the adaptive community. Movement is for everyone, regardless of our differences."

Hamilton recognizes that step one to make such a change is true and equal representation, which is why the #TrainersForHire initiative is so important. Not only does the campaign give adaptive and disabled athletes the chance to secure employment, but it can also show fellow gym-goers with disabilities that they're not alone. "In my own experience, working with trainers — especially in my younger years when I was still figuring out my life with one arm — really helped build my confidence and get my creative juices flowing as far as adapting with one arm," says Hamilton, who lost her left arm at the age of 13 after being attacked by a shark.

"Differences come in so many forms and it's unfortunate how many people are scared to go to the gym because they don't feel welcomed, are maybe just lacking the confidence, and just need some extra support," she continues. (ICYMI, Hamilton recently discussed the importance of mentorship for International Women's Day.)

Equal representation will no doubt help everyone feel more welcomed in the gym, says Hamilton. "Having trainers that can adapt with disabled athletes and work with them would help anyone feel more welcome," she says. "Representation matters — when people see others with a wide range of abilities, it makes them feel supported and welcomed too."

As for other tangible ways the fitness industry can help support disabled athletes, Hamilton tells Shape it often just takes a little bit of creativity. "I personally work with a lot of people with limb differences, helping them get creative and reminding them that they can get out there and find their own way of doing things and enjoy movement."

Hamilton recommends that gym spaces add designated areas and equipment designed to support adaptive athletes, as well as including adaptive classes or activities. So far, it seems that some big companies are taking notice. In fact, SoulCycle's Dedham, Massachusetts, location is hosting biweekly classes with American Sign Language interpretation, and Philadelphia's Revel Ride is now including spin classes for those with vision impairments Additionally, FitXR, which delivers virtual reality-like experiences, has released six new, accessible workout classes in their HIIT and dance studios. (Related: What People Don't Know About Staying Fit In a Wheelchair)

Still, there's so much more that can be done, which is why Degree is taking strides to encourage and facilitate change within the fitness industry. But anyone can help make fitness spaces feel more inviting, notes Hamilton. "If someone's new to the gym, a friendly smile can go a long way," she says. "Being warm and welcoming — whether by gym employees starting conversations or nearby athletes offering words of affirmation — can put anyone at ease. Going with a gym buddy can help boost confidence, too." (While you're here, read more about these fitness pros making the workout world more inclusive.)

"I love cheering people on and showing that anyone can find joy in movement, whatever it looks like for them," she says, "Just finding your own versions of movement and not letting fear hold you back is all it takes."

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