© Westpark Hanau
20 September 2021, by Cornelia Tautenhahn
Barrier-free training succeeds: where people with and without impairments work out together
At Westpark in Hanau inclusion is a lived experience in two senses of the word. Both employees and members with impairments can participate in fitness industry offerings. We find out why this concept is successful and what other fitness clubs can learn from this.
© Westpark Hanau
“Only when we no longer speak about inclusion have we succeeded in living inclusion.”
Since October 2019 people with and without impairments have been working out together as a matter of course at Westpark. Until today it is the only fitness club of this type in Germany. The concept is not only about physical fitness and health and a successful business but also about self-confidence and equal opportunities. We interviewed club manager Wladimir Römmich about the idea, what is still missing in the fitness industry and why, and how the topic of inclusion can end up on the agenda for all club operators.
FIBO: What are the biggest obstacles that people with impairments encounter in clubs that are not specifically geared to them?
Wladimir Römmich: For fairness sake let me add: I have personally not experienced this but I have worked with disabled people for more than 20 years and have therefore heard a lot of feedback to this effect. The biggest issue is building technology, to start with – if you can’t access the fitness club because there are neither ramps nor lifts you are excluded from the offering from the outset. This then is a recurring theme for the whole building: are the doors wide enough? Can I reach the lockers in the changing rooms? Are there barrier-free showers or toilets? Can I use the sauna? Can I get through the turnstile at the entrance using a wheelchair? How high is the reception counter? There are a whole host of details that can prove a major challenge. Only once these requirements are fulfilled can you focus on the centrepiece of the club – the training area. After all, many pieces of equipment simply cannot be used depending on the type of disability.
What have you done differently?
Römmich: At Westpark we did not want to create “special worlds” or separate zones but a training area for all. And we have succeeded in doing so in various ways. After a long search we made a find with Cybex, that engineered fitness equipment in such a way that it is geared specifically to the special training needs of people with impairments but also works for the rest of the population. With chest press or lat pulldown machines, for example, the seats can be folded back making them also accessible for wheelchair users. This equipment alone lives and breathes inclusion. I would like the manufacturers to take this to heart in the development of fitness equipment.
Mentally ill or mentally handicapped people also work out at your club. How have you prepared yourself for them?
Römmich: Here, too, we have to consider where we let our members work out. It, of course, makes sense to use circuits like those offered by “milon” or “EGYM” with pre-set equipment. Furthermore, supporting communication plays a prominent role – how do I find my next piece of equipment? To ensure this we work with clear labelling on the devices.
The biggest factor, however, is definitely personal support. At our club the trainer opens the door in the morning and locks it up again in the evening – so there is always somebody to ask. We do not economise on staff. In addition to instructors we also have sports scientists and physiotherapists on board. This always ensures in-depth expert exchange to develop the best work-outs for each individual member. What is very important to me personally: We do not make any distinctions among members, we do not ask them about their impairments and just treat everybody the same.
© Westpark Hanau
Manager Wladimir Römmich wants to bring the topic of inclusion into the focus of the fitness industry.
What do the courses look like?
Römmich: Here, too, we try to always follow an inclusive approach. We have one course schedule for all and stay away from extra courses for specific groups. If a member with physical impairments or simply comprehension problems wants to join in, the course manager customises the message for them or – if need be – flags up alternatives without impairing the group as a whole. Autonomy is very important, everyone decides by themselves what they are comfortable with or what they would like to try once.
Will you automatically become more courageous in this environment?
Römmich: We have noticed that demand is growing – there are even people from Frankfurt coming to our club. More and more people with impairments dare to enter fitness clubs. I will never forget a young man who took a look at the club and said: “I believe, I am in paradise here.” We make things possible that people would not have thought feasible until now.
Social aspects will definitely also play a major role at your club.
Römmich: Yes, we are a community here. Members motivate each other – and instructors naturally play an important role in this.
© Westpark Hanau
Mentoring is one of the key elements of the concept.
What are the skill sets instructors should have for this?
Römmich: You should not shy away from dealing with impairments of all types. You should not be biased – the humane approach is a basic prerequisite. Generally, any instructor can work here with a little support from the experienced colleagues. Communication is key, we’ll always find a way. And if we encounter a condition we are unfamiliar with, we consult with the caregiver or physiotherapist. The be all and end all is, of course, a comprehensive look at medical history at the beginning and check-ups at regular intervals. At our club there is always an instructor present who has an eye on this. This is important for all our members – regardless of their own physical state.
Do you also experience social integration as a result of sports integration at the club?
Römmich: The beauty of it is we no longer talk about impairments. For our members this is nothing special anymore. And this is also key for me: to make no differences! Only when we no longer speak about inclusion have we succeeded in living inclusion. As a society we have to make everything accessible to ensure participation for everyone.
Your club specialises in inclusion. How can all the other fitness clubs on a low budget improve in this field?
Römmich: You have to discuss it openly so that people can access the topic. But access also means access to the fitness club in the literal sense of the word – a lift or ramp installed at the entrance. This barrier-free design is a fundamental requirement. At times it is the small details that make all the difference such as a hairdryer positioned in such a way in the changing cubicle that wheelchair users can use it.
Even though the equipment at the studio is not purpose-designed you can offer many work-out options for people with impairments as a club operator. The support is key. Together with the team you can develop ideas for offering wheelchair users work-outs with the existing equipment.
Exploring this subject can bring operators many new opportunities.
Römmich: Exactly. You can reach out to new target groups and stand out from competitors with this specialisation. What’s more, you can offer training on prescription that is paid for by the sickness fund thereby generating a second revenue stream in the health market.
You also actively integrate people with impairments in the fitness labour market. How high is demand?
Römmich: We naturally try to create jobs for people with impairments time and again. We have received many requests for internships etc.. Needless to say, applicants also have to take shift work or working in the evening and on weekends on board. We treat all employees the same and make no distinctions. Like in any other company we also take individual needs into account.
To what extent has this characterised your corporate culture?
Römmich: We introduce people to the job profile. At our club each instructor has an assistant for training on the job. As a result, our employees with impairments can gradually perform more and more tasks on their own. In addition, we have established an internal training course for “Assistants for Fitness and Health”. We build the skills of people with impairments specifically for this job profile. In doing so we closely cooperate with the Special Olympics Academy and the education campus here at our building. This offering is in high demand. And you should not forget either: it often also makes sense if the assistant takes care of instructing members rather than the trainer because the assistant can better relate to members with impairments because he understands them better. Beyond this, jobs in administration or at the reception are very good jobs for people with impairments. It is about a meaningful occupation but also employing people profitably.
What do employers have to take into consideration in terms of working environment, working time models, and – if need be – stronger support of employees?
Römmich: Here, too, the same rule applies: everybody is treated the same – individually. Everyone has their own needs, with or without impairments. What counts is exchange. We hold regular conversations to see whether the job is a good fit and whether everything is in order in an applicant’s personal life. Problems are solved jointly and we show consideration for one another.
What are your plans for the future?
Römmich: Water is important for us as an element. In 5-10 years it would be great to offer water gymnastics. Apart from this you have to make up for the time lost through the pandemic. Although we have pulled through the crisis in good shape. As we serve a niche market we enjoy high customer loyalty. We also attract members who are older and appreciate the barrier-free environment or members who simply want to endorse the concept.
How can the inclusion theme be placed more centrestage in the fitness industry?
Römmich: We launched the concept because we realised that nobody was doing anything like that. We want to lead the way as a trendsetter in the fitness sector. Our aim is to raise awareness about this topic in the industry rather than expand our business. You can do a lot via relatively easy modes of thinking because inclusion starts in our minds.
It is not about “doing good” either. Operators should also consider conceptual and marketing aspects. Inclusion holds great potential for all parties involved.
At Westpark we would like to act as an eye-opener for the industry and see what is feasible. This must be covered by special-interest media and it should be on everybody’s lips. Then we would no longer have to do interviews like this in future because inclusion would simply be natural.
Thank you very much for the interview!