Exercising while disabled: damned if we don’t and damned if we do #AITA #Exercise #Disability

Recently an AITA thread on Reddit exposed the harassment disabled people who dare to exercise in public experience:

At my local YMCA, I have experienced ableism and harassment, too.

Subtle ableism greets me at the front door:

Automatic accessible door with a sign that says “Conserve Energy: use revolving door.”

I can’t use the revolving door unless someone ahead of me pushes. The accessible door is easier. You could say it conserves my energy.

Staff & others have defended the sign, though, when I called it to their attention. “It’s not directed at you, and the revolving door keeps heat from escaping.”

I get it. Conserving energy matters. YMCA is a nonprofit. They don’t have money to burn. And we’re in the middle of a climate catastrophe.

The problem is, disabled people get scapegoated for energy costs, “wasting” resources like medical plastics, and even climate change. The YMCA knows exactly who they are targeting with that sign.

Perhaps the YMCA hoped non-disabled members might second guess themselves if they snuck through the access door, but the problem is, you can’t always tell who’s disabled. Better to build an accessible entrance everyone can use, while conserving energy at the same time.

Why does it matter? Attitude is an access barrier. It announces who is welcome and who is not, who is a burden and who is not. And if your space doesn’t welcome disabled people, it is already inaccessible before we start talking ramps and elevators.

My husband joked we should stick signs on the treadmills: “Please use the track to conserve energy.” (Of course, treadmills can make walking accessible for some folks, but it’s a damn good point.)

I laughed so hard it hurt. “When you burn fat, you breathe it out as carbon dioxide. Bunch of climate-changing Crossfitters in here!”

It didn’t take long for the attitude on the door to become the attitude on the gym floor.

On the second day of my membership, an abled woman behind me snapped my photo on her iPhone. She didn’t even try to hide it.

I knew what she was up to. It’s a tale as old as time for disabled people: If we’re “caught” doing something abled folks think we shouldn’t be able to do, we get “Miracle in Aisle 3” meme’d. Amazing! Watch as a woman with a cane is totally healed!

Exercising while disabled: damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. If we don’t workout, people blame our disabilities on laziness. If we do, we’re faking. And I’m thin and white, which means I have a lot of privilege. Disabled people who aren’t thin and/or white get policed even more.

Inside, I was howling with laughter at my big break into Miracle Meme fame. It wasn’t like I tossed aside my cane and plyo’d to the peak of Mt. Step Mill. I was pushing pedals on a NuStep machine, for chrissakes, widely used in physical therapy and cardiac & pulmonary rehab. NuStep’s own YouTube features a video laying out the accessibility features for spinal cord injury:

I am not paraplegic, but one of my conditions, syringomyelia, literally means cavities in my spinal cord. I walk with an ataxic gait. My joints like to sublux and dislocate, too, thanks to Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. Between acute injuries, chronic pain, poor balance, and dizziness, I gotta be careful at the gym — and I am.

The NuStep is my holy grail workout machine. I can strengthen muscles, get my heart rate up, and not worry about falling. It also challenges my core to hold my trunk stable, stimulates neural connections, and improves circulation. I can adjust the resistance, too, and focus on activating my glutes (a problem for me that a pelvic floor therapist first pointed out and gave me exercises to improve).

But even if I climbed to the summit of Mt. Step Mill, it doesn’t mean you’re witnessing a Miracle at the YMCA.

After all, abilities fluctuate. Right now, I can’t even use the NuStep because of ankle instability and wrist pain. Instead, I have been riding a recumbent bike. That’s Ehlers Danlos Syndrome for you.

I hope randos on Facebook who 😮 me starring in my very own miracle meme noticed my butt was planted in a seat.

Getting photographed by fellow members sucks. Now imagine staff demanding your medical history.

Not long after the Miracle in Aisle 3 incident, a staff member invaded my personal space as I wiped down the machine post-workout. “Why do you have a cane?” He asked.

First: Never ask disabled strangers this question. They may not want to disclose private medical information, and the backstory could be traumatic — a car accident, an assault, who knows? Your curiosity does not trump their right to privacy.

Some people might argue the guy was just concerned for my safety like the Redditor claimed in AITA, but at no time during purchasing my membership did management require me to explain my disabilities (which are quite visible), provide a doctor permission letter, or any other documentation of my limitations. My safety is my responsibility. I wouldn’t climb on a machine where I could fall. I know better.

And the truth is, anyone can get seriously injured at the gym, regardless of disability.

I answered the question, anyway. I was still new to this Y, excited about my heavily discounted membership but nervous about exercising in public again after so many years at home on a recumbent bike. I didn’t want conflict.

“Well, you got a good workout,” he said. I couldn’t tell if he meant it as an accusation or compliment: faker or inspiration porn.

Later, the same staff member attempted to harass me off the NuStep machine so another member — someone I witnessed riding multiple machines, lifting weights, etc. — could claim it. “How long are you going to be? She likes this machine, too.”

It wasn’t as if I was hogging it. I just sat down. Every member gets 30 minutes on any machine if someone is waiting — longer if nobody wants it. I had waited all week for my shot: Three times, I left disappointed when the accessible machines were all taken. It doesn’t help two NuSteps are broken, one recumbent bike clunks when you peddle it, and another one’s seat shakes.

“I waited all week for this machine,” I said. “And I am not getting off for 30 minutes.”

My husband talked to management, who promised to let the staff member know he was inappropriate. They also promised to fix broken NuSteps & recumbent bikes. A month later, I checked: still broken. I remember when the treadmills were broken, how quickly they got repaired. Maybe there’s a reason the NuSteps got delayed–a hard-to-get part, perhaps–but the machines didn’t even have “sorry–in need of repairs” signs taped to the displays. I’m not sure the Y has any intention to fix them at all.

While we are talking about access to exercise, let’s not forget about missing & broken sidewalks, missing curb cuts, and inaccessible transit–all serious issues where I live.

I love walking, but it’s not safe. Where is the concern for my safety out there? I don’t see abled folks at City Council meetings grabbing the mic and demanding safe transit or sidewalks. In fact, in my city, they have fought tooth & nail against the Master Sidewalk Plan. One guy called sidewalks a “Russian plot”–fake Russian accent and all. (I wish I were joking.)

In a recent NextDoor thread, my neighbors demanded to know why pedestrians walk in the street & get in the way of their cars. “It’s dangerous,” they said. I reminded them they hated sidewalks & now they gotta live with the consequences.

As for me, I go to another YMCA location now, one inside a hospital clinic that partly caters to injury rehab patients & partly to a regular gym crowd. It’s got most everything my old location had (minus racquetball courts & a pool), plus more NuSteps than they know what to do with, accessible treadmills with rails running the whole length, a walking-only track, and no signs on the door discouraging me from hitting the automatic button. The only problem is, it’s clear across town, which considering how strongly YMCA feels about energy conservation 🙄, is kind of strange they want disabled members burning up extra fossil fuel just to snag an accessible machine. Why not make every location accessible?

Then again, it was never only about conserving energy, just like it was never only about safety.