In episode 75 of Teaching Channel Talks, we welcomed Brendan Aylward, a passionate health and fitness professional on a mission to make fitness accessible for everyone, especially individuals with physical or intellectual disabilities.
If you weren’t able to listen in, now you can read through Wendy and Brendan’s conversation as they explore the intersection of education, fitness, and inclusivity, and discover how Brendan Aylward is leading the charge towards a more inclusive fitness future for all.
Wendy: Brendan, you have a personal goal of creating a more inclusive fitness industry. Can you tell me about your career pathway? How do you get to that as a goal?
Brendan: Yeah, absolutely. It dates back to when I was in high school, I started volunteering with Special Olympics and Best Buddies, organizations that I’m sure a lot of your audience members are familiar with because of their presence in schools. I was also adamant about being a special education teacher until about halfway through university, I decided that I wanted to create a place where my special Olympic athletes could train alongside their peers. So I spent a couple of years coming up with the model that has since become Unified Health and Performance, which is our facility here in Massachusetts, and we train people with and without disabilities. We found a way to make it seamlessly integrated where the presence of a disability doesn’t prevent anyone from accessing the gym.
Wendy: You emphasize providing space for intellectual and physical disabilities. To me, those are distinct populations. Am I misunderstanding?
Brendan: No, not necessarily. I think it comes back to a human-centered and individualized approach. Right before this, I was doing an eval with an individual who had a spinal cord injury and we were trying to come up with a manual exercise he could conduct. Then later this afternoon, we’ll be working with some clients with autism and Down syndrome. We treat everyone in the same way, no matter who we’re working with.
We basically conduct the needs assessments of what they want to work on in the same way that you would figure out what a student needs to be successful. Just like teachers have specific standards, we have our informal fitness standards. Depending on what their specific goal is, we cater a program to that and there are aspects of universal design. So maybe if someone has an intellectual disability, we’re going to communicate in a different way, whereas if they have a physical disability the environment might have to be structured in a different way, but since we follow individualized, personalized programming, the presence of the disability just becomes another factor to consider.
Wendy: What you’re describing sounds exactly like good teaching, where we think about the unique needs of each learner in front of us, and in this case, we’re talking about fitness. Can we explore some of the essential considerations for a facility, though? What recommendations would you make for someone who gets to make those decisions?
Brendan: I think the physical landscapes are obviously the first barrier. If someone can’t access the gym physically, then they can’t exist within the community. So make sure that you’re adhering to ADA standards, but sometimes I think it becomes overwhelming for people who might not have the background within special education or accessibility, and they’re not quite sure where to start. I also think there’s sometimes an assumption, that if someone claims to be inclusive or accessible, it opens them up to criticism when inevitably you’re not, or when maybe someone wants to be served in a specific way that you’re not familiar with. I think sometimes that prevents people from starting.
When I’m working with other health and fitness professionals and trying to help them be more inclusive and accessible, I encourage them to make mistakes and learn on the fly. You can’t really figure out how to serve everyone until you’ve served one person, so we talk about incremental universal design. Maybe start by making sure the building is accessible and then you can transition into making sure your programming is accessible. It’s a process. We like to say that inclusion is not necessarily a destination, but just something that you work on every day to provide support.
Wendy: It’s a good business practice! You’re the owner of Unified Health and Performance and the founder of AdaptX. Tell me about those. Are they the same?
Brendan: So Unified is a for-profit conditioning facility that we started in 2016, July 4th will be 7 years, and then AdaptX, I came up with the concept about four years ago. Initially, it just started as a series of presentations for my staff, to bring them up to speed on working with various disabilities, and then it just kept growing. It became a robust enough curriculum that we wanted to share it with other people, so AdaptX is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. My goal is just to reach as many people as possible, so there aren’t really any financial incentives.
Fortunately, my gym does well enough that Unified is like my day job, and then AdaptX is like my passion project where I get to teach other health and fitness professionals and university students about our view towards accessibility and inclusion. We also have a little bit of a research space here. So we do projects with a few local universities specifically on cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.
Wendy: I think of AdaptX as your curriculum and your programs, really everything except the location and I wonder what lessons you’ve learned from developing that curriculum and program?
Brendan: It’s been a learning experience, I’m always revising and always trying to add to it. Delivering the program asynchronously and remotely has been, I wouldn’t say a struggle, but there are certainly specific challenges that come about with remote learning. It was a little disjointed initially because, as I mentioned, it started as a series of individual presentations that we had to make into a curriculum to be more cohesive. From there, the focus was on figuring out how to make it more engaging and interactive. We’ll have students on the West Coast and East Coast and recently, we’ve been working with some professionals in New Zealand, so all the different time zones obviously present a challenge as well.
But from an education standpoint, it’s what I enjoy doing. I love teaching and I love the opportunity to expose people to these concepts before they enter the field of fitness so that hopefully, they take that lens into whatever facility they end up at. Our hope is that AdaptX will produce more people who want to open facilities like ours.
Wendy: You are involved in some very robust research projects. Can you share a little bit about maybe one or two of your favorites?
Brendan: Yeah, I think the literature on adaptive fitness is relatively scarce. Especially when it comes to more robust projects, there are some specific barriers such as getting individuals with Down syndrome to travel to a site for a study a couple of times a week, or for several weeks, which can be tough. We’re fortunate that since we already have these athletes coming to our facility, we’re able to conduct some projects on-site here.
The big thing we’re working on is projects that have a higher ROI. It’s easier to put up a mechanistic study and say that fitness is good for people with Down syndrome because it improves their muscle mass. Like, that’s probably pretty obvious, if anyone engages in in a good fitness program, they’re going to see those things improve. What we’re trying to work on is the larger scale, macro products such as why aren’t gyms accessible? What do they need to be accessible?
We have a couple of capstone groups and those capstone groups are physical therapy students of these universities, so they have to complete a doctoral capstone project. We have one that’s working on building out an accessibility audit, so looking at the physical footprint, the digital footprint, and the way that programming is delivered. They’re coming up with what will become a checklist that gyms can use to audit their environment and programming. Then we have some projects that are on cerebral palsy and different training strategies for that population, and another looking at different ways of assessing lower body strength for wheelchair users. Those are things that I’m interested in because I want to do the best that we can in terms of a programming standpoint, but we’re also looking at the larger scale things to see how to make the industry more accessible.
Wendy: I wonder if you can help me think about some of the related stakeholders around a student who may benefit from some adaptive physical education. How can families help to make sure that the atmosphere or the instruction is right for their children?
Brendan: Nora Shields has done research on this. She is out in Australia and looks at the barriers and facilitators for physical activity for people with disabilities. From her research, we know that parental support and family involvement tend to be significant facilitators in helping people become more physically active, especially those with disabilities. Convincing their parents, their caregivers, and their family members of the importance of physical activity can be a great first step along with creating opportunities for them to be active together.
I’m fortunate in that I was already strongly immersed within my community through Special Olympics, and I was running all of the Special Olympics programs for our area. So the parents in that community have already trusted me as a coach and then we’ve transitioned into the fitness and sports environment. I think sometimes finding people who are strongly immersed within their community, whether it’s Special Olympics or other programs that support people with disabilities, can be a great way to introduce them to the fitness environment. Reaching out to local disability service agencies and asking if they’re interested in having a weekly or biweekly class, and just getting more people involved with physical activities. There’s no shortage of evidence that people with disabilities aren’t as active as their peers.
I get frustrated because a lot of time gyms will offer short programs for people with disabilities. While that’s a great stepping stone, if someone came to me with a specific goal of say running a marathon, I wouldn’t give them only 4 weeks of training, and then let them take the next few months off and go run their marathon. There needs to be opportunities for people to be active year-round. So, if you’re going to offer an 8-week program, why can’t you find a way to embed it within your ethos and within your regular system? It’s a good first step, but we want something more regular.
Wendy: I’m grateful to hear you recommending that people connect with agencies and established leaders and tap into what is already available. There are too many people in all kinds of roles in education that try to go at it alone and it just is not effective. We can’t serve our students if we’re trying to do things in a vacuum and so I really appreciate that piece of advice. In particular, there are networks and if it’s not right in your town, it may be in the next town over and it will be great to to let that neighboring effect expand so that more people can get what they need.
Brendan: As I mentioned before, a lot of gyms aren’t doing this. We have clients with disabilities who travel 30 minutes or more to the gym, whereas you and I would likely find a gym that’s the most logistically convenient and that might only be 5 or 10 minutes from our houses. Their opportunities might not be as plentiful, so it’s important to connect with organizations all around your area.
While we want to get to a point where people with and without disabilities can seamlessly coexist, sometimes a good first step is just to offer a program for only people with disabilities to get them into the gym and get them comfortable. Then you can figure out what supports they need and how they can exist within your clientele. If someone came to me after having knee surgery, I wouldn’t just throw them into a group class just so they could be with their same-age peers. We would want to make sure they have the prerequisite skills, so sometimes there is an incremental step towards getting someone with a disability fully immersed within their regular gym community. They do have to possess the skills to function safely in the same way that their nondisabled peers would.
Wendy: I may be too teacherly, but I can also imagine that people may appreciate being asked what they need. So we can invite people in and start an open conversation, get a dialogue going to figure out what the next step is together.
Brendan: That’s another big barrier for new fitness professionals. Maybe they don’t have any exposure to working with disabilities before and express that they’re worried about saying or doing something incorrect. What we’ve found is that if you just have genuine conversations and you demonstrate that you care about the individual’s best interest, then they’re going to give you the grace to make mistakes or do something wrong and figure it out. It’s a lot of trial and error working with them, so I think you just need to have a willingness to do your best for each individual.
Wendy: Brendan, I’d like for you to imagine that I’ve brought some students to your gym, and I’d love to know what message you want them to hear from you.
Brendan: First sessions are always going to be exploratory in nature. We’re figuring out what they’re drawn to and what they’re interested in because then we can leverage some of those motivations to construct the workout. If our clients aren’t enjoying the workouts, then they’re not looking forward to those sessions and their effort is going to be compromised and the consistency isn’t going to be there. So while we might know what’s best for the individual, there has to be some give and take. If we know what exercises they like and what exercises they don’t like, then maybe we can structure the workouts in a way that balances those.
If you bring a group of students to me, I have my template of what I want to try out, but there’s gonna be some flexibility in that. We’re going to want to find out how they learn most effectively. So if I’m standing there in a circle and I’m giving verbal instruction, then I notice that half the class isn’t even paying attention, then I’m going to have to try a different way. Maybe it’s demonstrating exercises, or maybe it’s breaking up into small groups or working one-on-one with someone to figure out what learning style they need. I like to understand how they learn most effectively and then what they’re drawn to as well because we can use those preferences as reinforcement.
Wendy: I like hearing that you want to listen for motivations instead of feeling that you’re going to motivate somebody!
Brendan: I think good adaptive fitness is applying a bit of everything—special education, physiology, anatomy, and psychology. You need to know how to elicit behavior change to get through to someone who has never worked out. You have to be a great listener and communicator, and that’s where I think having that special education background gave me a huge advantage. I get exercise science interns from a couple of local universities, and typically the best ones are always the best “people” persons. When they’re able to communicate effectively, I can easily teach them how to coach the different exercises, but sometimes it’s harder to teach someone how to be personable. So I think those are the foundations that I look for, not just a really good fitness professional, but a strong communicator as well.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity, but you can listen to the full episode of Teaching Channel Talks and find accompanying learning resources here.
Brendan Aylward is the owner of Unified Health & Performance, an inclusive strength and conditioning facility in Massachusetts, and the owner and founder of AdaptX, a program focused on educating trainers about adaptive and inclusive fitness. Brendan began his career in strength and conditioning during his time in college, working with sports programs as well as providing at-home fitness services for a handful of individuals with various disabilities. In 2014, he became the youngest ever to coach for Team Massachusetts at the Special Olympics USA Games and has been a resource for Special Olympics on improving fitness in their athletes over the last several years.
Dr. Wendy Amato is the Chief Academic Officer at Teaching Channel’s parent company, K12 Coalition. Wendy earned her Master’s in Education and Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Virginia. She holds an MBA from James Madison University. Wendy began teaching in 1991, has served as a Middle School Administrator, and still teaches at UVA’s School of Education. She has delivered teacher professional development workshops and student leadership workshops in the US and internationally. Wendy and her family live near Charlottesville, Virginia.
Resources for Continued Learning
Learn more about AdaptX and Brendan’s mission to educate others about adaptive and inclusive fitness by visiting AdaptX.org
Brendan hosts a weekly podcast amplifying the voices and ideas of individuals who are building accessible businesses or products, advocating for inclusion, or excelling in adaptive sports. Listen to new episodes every Monday.