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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 March 2008 Issue  Volume 9  Number 2

Letter to the Editor

Exercise for Everyone

I'd like to add to the discussion on access to exercise. Responding to your superb article on gym equipment, I believe also a major barrier is excessively visual teaching style. Unsuccessfully, I've attempted to keep up in aerobics classes, only to find that I needed so much assistance I slowed the pace for the entire group. Just watch any exercise video and you'll find the instructor shouting: "reach your arms up" or "stick your elbows out." Unless you are already an aerobics instructor, I challenge the average user to correctly follow the moves with the screen turned off. And audio exercise tapes rely on included booklets with diagrams to demonstrate their exercises.

I've heard of students whose success in exercise class occurred by meeting with the trainer beforehand to become completely familiar with all the movements. That strategy never worked for me, perhaps because I'm overweight, middle-aged and kinesthetically challenged, and because the instructors insisted they improvised and that the moves for each class session were always slightly different.

Vincent Martin, who wrote your January issue's letter to the editor, suggests we all get out and walk. I once lost 100 pounds walking, and couldn't agree more. When I ran all my errands on foot, I stayed slender.

When I was thin, I could do chin-ups, roller-blade, jump rope and ski. But when I was thin, I was very poor, because I've never been able to stay thin while working full-time. Sidewalks are disappearing from our suburbs. Some of us are stuck on or waiting outrageous periods for paratransit. And additional factors like arthritis or inflexible work hours can prevent us from getting out there. One major barrier to using the gym often is simply finding the time to commute to a gym when you don't drive.

Having equipment at home doesn't work when spouses don't want that ugly treadmill in the living room, or fixed income prevents the purchase of gear. My sighted friends can't afford a personal trainer either, which only shows that most barriers to exercise aren't unique to us, but visual impairment does intensify those barriers!

I thought it was interesting that Mr. Martin can "design a workout regimen with nothing but body-weight, dumbbells, a mat, and an exercise ball, and keep any sighted or visually impaired person in shape." Good for him, he's a paraolympic athlete. I wish he'd design an exercise program for me! Between commuting and working, I'm away from home 14 hours each weekday, and my boss recently ordered me to work an extra hour because he thought I was leaving too early! In between times, I try to be a good homemaker, and to get a few hours of sleep.

I'd really like to see someone get a grant to do just that--design an exercise program and deliver it for reasonable cost to any interested blind or visually impaired individual. I've written National Braille Press, for example, suggesting an exercise book that contains no-miss directions for the common moves with plans for active, sedentary, older, fatter, and also more athletic folks. They're interested but haven't found a suitable book yet to adapt.

A few individuals have created exercise tapes for blind people, but these are small enterprises that stay in business for only a few years. I'd love to see an open-source online training funded by a federal grant. I've written to colleges and universities, hoping they can interest some graduate students in designing such a program. I would be happy to be a guinea pig. I've written to radio reading services hoping they'd put an exercise hour on the air. I've written to the descriptive video folks, asking them to describe some of PBS's exercise shows. I'll be happy to put my pudgy self on video, demonstrating the moves so sighted trainers can get precision of instruction down. But nobody's taken me up on my offer! Maybe someone reading could forward this letter to a group who might.

Exercising would also be ideal material for a software program. You would perform a few simple fitness tests, and the software would instruct you in exercises that would be challenging, but not impossible for your particular fitness level. Instructions would be precise--rather than "stick your arms out," "extend your arms at right angles to your body, parallel to each other, palms facing towards the floor, fingers slightly spread apart."

Just as it is easier for a blind geek to figure out how to make JAWS co-exist with an unfriendly application, a physical education teacher who lost her sight would likely have less trouble accessing an exercise regimen than an out-of-shape klutzy blind person. Just as online access technology training is now becoming popular, I hope more organizations will find grant money to teach exercise to us remotely.

Deborah Norling
Milpitas, California

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