Personal training for people with special educational needs and disabilities


Dermot Kavanagh discusses the benefits of personal training for people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND)

If the last year has taught us anything, it’s the importance of mental and physical wellbeing and how exercise can help see us through the trickiest of times. But exercise can be daunting enough at the best of times, so where does that leave people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND)?

Making exercise accessible

Most personal training (PT) courses teach you an extensive array of exercises to suit different people and their different goals, but lack any real information on how to support clients with additional needs. So where does that leave the SEND community when it comes to accessing mainstream fitness platforms and related activities? In a report by Future Fit Training, Raising the Bar, it stated that 86% of fitness employees think that current training does not equip gym professionals to work with disabled people. The same study showed that 95% of respondents think that working with disabled people should be included as standard in the Personal Trainer qualification rather than being an optional study route.

Gyms simply lack the accessibility, equipment and training to meet the needs of individuals with SEND. The picture isn’t much brighter in schools with the My Active Future report by Activity Alliance stating that only 25% of disabled children take part in sport and activity all of the time. The reality is that an inactive childhood is much more likely to lead to inactivity in adulthood too. According to Sport England, you are twice as likely to be physically inactive if you have a disability than if you don’t.

So just because the opportunities in mainstream fitness are few and far between does that mean that people with additional needs should miss out? Inactivity can lead to an array of health issues like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes as well as having a negative impact on mental health. A combination of the above means that people with SEND are much more likely to face health issues than their peers. But shouldn’t this be seen as a fault of wider society rather than a disability-induced barrier? The key to getting people with additional needs involved in exercise is understanding and addressing the barriers that stop them accessing fitness platforms and participating in the first place.

The benefits of regular exercise

The benefits of exercise are widely known, with improved cardiovascular health, muscle tone, mental health and general wellbeing. For those with additional needs they can be even more beneficial. Improved muscle tone can help with conditions such as dyspraxia and Cerebral Palsy, helping to improve control over the body. Bodyweight exercises and the use of resistance can provide a great deal of much needed sensory input.

Throughout lockdown I have had the absolute pleasure of working as a personal trainer with children and young people with a range of different needs; including brain injuries, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and anxiety and tic disorders. This came about after discussions with my fiancé who is a paediatric Occupational Therapist (OT). It became clear that there was a huge gap in the market for personal trainers to work with children and young people with SEND, and for those children and young people to access any platforms for exercise and physical activity. According to the My Active Future report, less than half of parents with disabled children felt they had enough support to help their child to be active. We cannot expect parents to have the knowledge on physical activity to be able to provide the sort of physical activity needed.

Whilst working with my latest caseload of children and young people, I have worked as part of Multi-Disciplinary Teams (MDT’s);

I have seen personal training written into Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs); and I have advised on bodyweight/heavy work exercises that have been incorporated into sensory diets.

Exercise provides a great deal of sensory input. for teenagers. Working alongside professionals such as OT’s and Educational Psychologists, we have been able to come up with holistic plans ensuring that all the needs of the child or young person have been met.

Breaking down barriers

If the last year has shown me anything, it’s that people with SEND want to exercise and do well at it. In my experience, the primary barrier for the SEND community participating in physical fitness activities is the lack of access to groups with an appropriate cohort of peers, and to personal trainers with the required skill sets and experience. A secondary barrier has been the environment, with gyms often proving too highly stimulating and/or the environment being inaccessible for individuals with physical disabilities.

In order to address these barriers, I have found working outdoors in gardens or parks beneficial, not only for the well-documented positive impacts of spending time outdoors, but it also enables me to tailor the environment to the individual sensory or physical needs of the client. Being outdoors gives us a much calmer sensory experience than a gym would and means that a quiet space can be found if a client needs to take a minute or two out.

Working as a PT with SEND children and young people requires creativity and imagination; tapping into their motivators to make exercise fun and accessible – whether that be ‘testing out’ bus seats to disguise a squat or moving around the park imitating their favourite animal. A child I work with is reluctant to run as a result of perceived demand but tell him he is a bus going from stop to stop and he is off like a rocket.

The benefits of exercise

I have also been able to use personal training to support young people with SEND who cannot access their mainstream P.E curriculum. The gains I have seen in these young people have been as much in their self-confidence and well-being, as they have been with their physical fitness. Using activities like plogging (running whilst picking up rubbish) and boxing to engage the client. One of my clients felt it impossible to engage in his P.E class, meaning that he was missing out on vital physical activity. Since we started, he has seen immense growth in muscle tone, confidence and wellbeing and has found a much-needed mechanism for battling with his anxiety. The key to these young people’s success has, very simply, been providing an accessible fitness programme – tailored to their individual needs and interests – to ensure their success.

I have had the opportunity to work with some truly incredible and inspirational young people and I have seen some great progress across the board. I believe the key to this success is taking a client-led approach to the sessions and using your imagination to build the session around them. Part of my initial questionnaire to parents before the sessions is finding out about the passions of these young people and using them to try and engage the children in exercise, making sessions fun and disguising exercise as play. In almost all of my sessions, if you take away the demand that you may put into a standard exercise session, then you will see the best results. Taking part in the session, by both demonstrating and completing any exercises with the client, is another way to take away the demand. If the demand is low and the sessions are fun you are much more likely to keep the client active.

Making a change

In summary what I have learnt since working in the world of SEND is that it is not lack of motivation that is affecting participation in physical activity, but more so lack of accessible platforms that will help children and young people get the best out of it. When the accessible platform is there then the uptake will follow. We should not expect those with additional needs to have to fit into mainstream platforms but instead change the way we approach how we deliver a service to cater for their needs. In addition, my sessions with clients with SEND have been some of the most fun and rewarding sessions I’ve ever taken.

To simply accept that being disabled or having additional needs will lead to inactivity is inexcusable. If exercise is deemed as inaccessible to the SEND world then we must do what it takes to make it accessible. At a time where health and wellbeing is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, how can it be that something as simple as physical activity is so limited for people with additional needs? It is now the responsibility of the fitness industry to change with the times and adapt their approach to meet the needs of the SEND world. In line with the latest government campaign to get people fit and healthy, it is vital that we ensure that people with SEND have equal access to this initiative.

Dermot Kavanagh
Author: Dermot Kavanagh

Dermot Kavanagh
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Dermot Kavanagh is a personal trainer based in Walton. He served in the military for four years and has done a lot of conservation work in South Africa including training Anti Poaching Units. His passion is for the outdoors as well as helping people to get active and realise their potential. Dernot’s work is now focussed on bringing an accessible fitness platform to the SEND world. 

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