Heading to the gym with her friends in her wheelchair, Danielle Arbour says a lack of accessible options can defeat the purpose of going with a group.
“There would be instances where my friends could go off and do one thing, and I’d have to go off and do a completely other thing,” Arbour said in an interview.
“That leads to feeling like I’m not kind of accepted where I’m going. But it’s completely different here at Verso.”
Studio Verso is a new gym in St. John’s. Centered around spin and rowing classes, the O’Leary Avenue gym houses a special piece of equipment that makes a wheelchair workout more accessible than ever.
Owners Emily Hickey and Maria Snow say they believe their Invictus Active Trainer is a first in Atlantic Canada.
The machine is a treadmill designed for wheelchair users, in which a person would back their wheelchair onto the machine and use a locking mechanism to keep their chair in place. They would then start pushing their wheels — which stay spinning thanks to two rear cylinders — and can move at their own pace.
Hickey said the gym, which opened just two weeks ago, was looking at having accessible fitness options since its inception, recognizing the need for accessibility in gym settings.
“The reason that we decided to open this facility was what moving your body does for your overall wellness, and we felt it was so important to extend that to as many people as physically possible. So having a machine in our space that’s accessible is part of that,” Hickey said.
“It’s a learning experience, I guess, in terms of finding the right fit of the machine for the individual. But once we found it, I think it’s really beneficial,” Snow added.
The pair said they’ve had a lot of positive reception to the machine in their first week of opening. Arbour was among the first to try the Invictus, and said it’s validating to have accessible fitness options available locally.
“It means so much,” she said. “Before there was not a whole lot of accessible spaces where I could go and train with my friends. The majority of my friends are able-bodied. So to be able to have the opportunity to go and take part in a fitness class with them means so much.”
Accessibility is so much more than a machine
But while having the machine opens up opportunities, Hickey and Snow say it doesn’t just make them an accessible gym.
That title comes with a lot of planning. Everything from creating pathways around the gym to surrounding the Invictus machine with elliptical machines to promote inclusion — and working with community members to maximize accessibility.
“Accessibility needs to be considered in more aspects than just a push button on a door,” Hickey said.
“People need to consider bathrooms, they need to consider entryways. They need to consider if there’s stairs, they need to consider if there’s a reception desk that there’s room for a chair.
“Accessibility really extends to every aspect of a business, and we would really love to see more businesses implementing that.”
When asked what gyms can do be more accessible for wheelchair or other persons with disabilities, Arbour said it’s important to remember that not everyone is at the same playing field or comfort level in a gym environment. As well, thought needs to be given to space and ease of equipment access.
Snow says they’ve learned a lot through the process, and that the Invictus machine is only the beginning.
“This is just the start for us as well. There’s … so much more we can do than just this one little piece,” she said.
“There are options out there. You just need to go looking for them,” Hickey added.