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An exercise in missed opportunity: inclusive fitness equipment for people with sight loss

Going to the gym or using exercise equipment at home is simply part of a daily routine for many people, but locking-in this routine isn’t as easy for everyone. A huge amount of modern fitness equipment just isn’t accessible for those with a visual impairment, as a new report has demonstrated.

The study, ‘Inclusive fitness equipment for people with a visual impairment’, was commissioned by sight loss charity Thomas Pocklington Trust and carried out by Rica (the Research Institute for Consumer Affairs). It showed the prevalence of console systems that are partially or entirely unusable to people with a visual impairment, despite a widespread desire among this group stay physically active.

e-Access Bulletin found out more about the study from Lynn Watson, Head of Research at Thomas Pocklington Trust, and Chris Lofthouse, Outreach Manager at Rica.

- E-Access Bulletin: Does the topic of fitness for people with a visual impairment get overlooked?

Lynn Watson: “Research from RNIB showed that 64% of visually impaired people would like to be more physically active and that many feel held back by various barriers. These include persistent social attitudes and the slowness of many designers and manufacturers to embrace inclusive design.”

Chris Lofthouse: “Our research with gym managers and equipment manufacturers showed a low level of awareness of the needs of visually impaired people. Until this changes, inclusive gym equipment is likely to be a low priority. We hope that our research will help to raise awareness of visually impaired people’s enthusiasm for getting and staying healthy, as well as the barriers that stop them taking part.”

- What did the study find to be the biggest issues faced by visually impaired users?

Chris: “Participants found that consoles with tactile buttons, audio output, colour contrast and block colours were more accessible. Our testers unanimously agreed that there was a need for voice-over on all console types.

“In terms of environment, use of cardiovascular fitness equipment had a substantial impact upon users’ lives, including improvements in everyday fitness and mental health. However, our testers found accessing fitness equipment and facilities challenging because of drawbacks in the built environment and customer service.”

- How important is audio output on fitness machines to make them inclusive for a visually impaired audience?

Lynn: “Very important. Voice-over technology was seen by participants as an urgent requirement. From interviews with industry representatives, the barriers to progress were: cost, industry culture, lack of awareness and over-reliance on formal standards, which have not kept pace with advances in technology.”

Chis: “There are limited options available, because there is no discernible trend within the fitness sector toward audio output. Some said that the way ahead would be to integrate gym equipment controls with smartphone technology.”

- Were there any pieces of equipment that stood out as being particularly inclusive for visually impaired users?

Lynn: “This doesn’t come through in the research. The study indicates that LED consoles are moderately more accessible than touchscreen consoles, but neither type performed very well.”

Chris “None stood out. A rowing machine manufacturer, Concept2, has introduced ErgChatter, a free software tool which provides audio output, but there is little else on offer.”

- What were participants’ key recommendations from the study?

Chris: “Wider use of audio output and voice-over technology; use of wireless technology; ability to increase font size on screens; tactile buttons and high-contrast colours on LED consoles; improved layout, colour use, signage and lighting in leisure centres; trained staff to assist VI people in using equipment.

“People in focus groups argued that VI-friendly adaptations would also improve going to the gym for other users, such as people with learning disabilities and people with different motor or sensory skills.”

- What can gyms and leisure centres do to become more inclusive for customers with a visual impairment?

Chris: “1. Develop a best-practice guide for manufacturers, outlining design features most appropriate for visually impaired users.

2. Support an update to the Inclusive Fitness Initiative (IFI) standards set by the English Federation of Disability Sport, reinforcing the case for inclusive design.

3. Product design teams should make better use of guidelines and best practice from other industries, independent organisations and governmental bodies.

4. Improve staff training and communication procedures across the fitness sector, using the NHS Accessible Information Standard.

5. Implement a voluntary ‘buddy scheme’ at all public sector leisure centres to assist visually impaired users and other disabled users.”

Read the inclusive fitness guide in full, in Word or PDF, at the Thomas Pocklington Trust website.

Find out more about the study at Rica’s website.


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