If you’re a person with developmental disabilities looking for a group exercise class, you might find yourself being funneled into services for people with “needs” like you. You’ll sign up for a class through this special service, and begin attending classes that are created especially for people with developmental disabilities. Maybe the class being offered is 10 miles from your home, but it’s what you signed up for (and it’s all they offer). While you’re there, maybe there is a volunteer or staff person who doesn’t have disabilities. They’re there to join the class with you – and you love having them there but depending, it might feel odd, like chaperoning. By the end of it you’ll find that the class is sort of like you’d imagine any fitness class to be, and you like it.
But part of you knows that a “group fitness class” in any other sense of the term does not look like a room full of people who share the same (often negatively perceived) label as you. You have a choice to attend this class, no one is forcing you to. But at the same time, the options in front of you don’t always look the same as the options laid out in front of a person without disabilities.
Choice 1: Attend a group fitness class with other people with disabilities
Choice 2: Attend a group fitness class in the community
Choice 3: Stay home
What choice would you make? Probably not unless you are living with a developmental disability or you are a parent of someone with disabilities do you truly know how weighty Choice 2 can feel. The anxiety of trying something for the first time and meeting new people is loaded with a history of setbacks and other challenges. Especially when the majority of services for people with developmental disabilities operate under a model of providing separate activities for you, it’s difficult to travel down the road less taken. And it’s likely that without these services, however imperfect, you’d be sitting at home instead of having any kind of social life. Your experience already tells you that for various reasons, not withstanding the nature of your disability making you inherently “different” than others in the community, that trying to fit in outside of the “service world” comes with a litany of new challenges. Why make things harder, when there are good services available that will create a social life for you? Let’s not forget that with these services comes loads of comfort and reassurance for your parents and the community alike. You’re taken care of.
Still, if your simple goal is to start exercising with other people, might it be worth it to channel just part of your efforts toward tapping into what the community already has to offer? Might it be possible that there are also people in the community who are willing to chip in some support to you (not all, but whatever they can give), and not get paid?
There are dozens of Zumba classes happening around the city every month — some of these might even be close to where you live. The schedules are easily accessed on local fitness center websites. So you do your research and show up, right? You pay for the class – and voila! You belong. Easy peasey lemon squeezy?
Maybe you’ve caught on, but the story we’re trying to tell at Starfire looks different than a separate life for people with developmental disabilities, BUT (I know, there is a but) a full life for people with disabilities also doesn’t come as easy as just “showing up” in the community. Were it, I promise I would wrap up this whole blog post up right now with a nice little bow and cherry-on-top and leave you to the rest of your to-do list.
It’s just not that simple. There are too many preconceptions, too many real concerns for safety, and too many tangled support systems in a person’s life that make it difficult for them to enter a room without the others in that room, or their caregivers, or their family having a whole lot of limiting beliefs around what it will take to include them.
The important part (that took us 20 years to learn) is not putting up roadblocks that take away the possibility of an integrated, meaningful life for people. One of those roadblocks (that we’ve had to dismantle at Starfire) is operating under the sole assumption that people with disabilities can only have a full life if services recreate a community-esque social life FOR them.
A life, ordinary, purposeful, and in the community – truly in the community, for a person with developmental disabilities does take work. It requires a different way of doing things from what most people have learned, and that means hard work. Beth is in the middle of this journey. For a couple years now, she has been working with Starfire and her family to build a community of Zumba lovers around her. Week after week, we encouraged Beth to show up at her local rec center to take ordinary community classes. Soon, her family got on board and it became a whole team effort. There was no middle man, besides Starfire’s staff slowly helping facilitate relationships with the other women in the class. She started slow and learned her way into it. She grew more familiar with the steps and the songs a little more each class. Friendships started to emerge with certain instructors whose children’s names she learned and birthdays she remembered. If she doesn’t go one week, she’s missed. If the instructor needs an extra hand, she’s asked to help. Once this network got established in her life, Starfire then helped Beth and the other women deepen their connection by brainstorming around a project idea that they could work on together. Beth became the catalyst for a Zumba fundraiser for Children’s Hospital that she and her group of Zumba-goers organize. Next year will mark the 3rd annual Cha-cha for the Children (see video).
Yes, there are pro’s and there are con’s to recreating a special class for Beth to attend where she is showing up to exercise with other people who have Down Syndrome – like her. But when it comes to the pro’s and con’s of her joining a community fitness class in her neighborhood – with Starfire’s facilitation and support – the benefits far outweigh any con’s. Maybe the second option requires a little more courage at the onset, and a lot more time in the long run, but it is the way to deeper, more sustained relationships in Beth’s life and a richer, more inclusive community for us all. Who wouldn’t want to at least try?