Blind fitness instructor helps other people with sight loss to get active

Post date: 
Tuesday, 26 September 2017
Photo of fitness instructor facing a cycling class

Meet Michelle Felix, a fitness professional who's registered blind and provides audio-described exercise for clients with sight loss.

 

Tell us about yourself…

I’m registered blind and have some residual vision. My diagnosis is macular degeneration, which is loss of central vision but that allows me to see details. I have a company called Michelle Felix Group, which specialises in optimising fitness and wellbeing for clients with disabilities. My key focus is providing audio-described exercise for clients with sight loss and it’s been a real joy providing this service since 2015.
 

What was your career before the fitness industry?

I worked in corporate customer relations for 19 years. In 2014, I was made redundant (medically retired). Following that, I signed up to the InstructAbility programme, which seeks to train more people with disabilities to work in the fitness industry as positive role models to engage other people with disabilities to get active.
 

What classes do you offer?

I offer dance fitness, gentle exercise, over 60s sessions and indoor cycling classes. At the moment, these classes are accessed through organisations with clients, service users or employees who have disabilities.
 
I also provide an at-home service for people who find it difficult to get out to exercise and for people who simply prefer exercising in the comfort of their own home. This can be one-to-one or in a small group.
 

What did you consider from your own experiences when devising the classes?

Being a VIP (visually impaired person), I experienced a lack of fitness classes accessible to me because staff lacked visual awareness. Speaking to VIP members of various online groups and attendees of events, I found that they wanted to attend keep-fit classes but couldn’t find one that catered for them. So I decided to create a bespoke VIP-friendly exercise environment, providing audio description, spatial awareness and class structure that is sensitive and responsive to their needs.
 
Inspiration came from Fya Stead, my first salsa teacher, who taught salsa by using names of movements. I translated this into instructing exercise to music. If a movement is new and innovative and doesn't have a name, I give it one and teach it alongside classic dance fitness moves. Once all the moves are associated with a name, the name becomes a cue that can be easily followed by my clients who are blind or partially sighted.
 
I am also a disabled mother with a non-disabled daughter, who wants to engage in activities together. My experience of only finding family activities for when the child – not the parent – is disabled, led me to offer family group exercise sessions as well.
 

Do you have any help during class?

Fay is my support worker and she is responsible for spotting (which is describing how participants look so I can decide if they are adopting a harmful technique, unwell or in discomfort during classes). Fay also assists with the visuals of printed forms, membership cards and processing payments.
 

What training have you undergone to work in the fitness industry?

Through InstructAbility I gained my Level 2 Gym Instructor qualification and Level 3 Exercise and Disability qualifications. After this, I continued my professional development within the fitness industry to include a number of different specialities, including an Exercise to Music qualification, dance fitness training and suspension fitness. I have also undertaken training in health and safety essentials, safeguarding and gained certification in emergency first aid.
 

What’s involved before a client can start training with you?

We begin with a welcome session. I have a questionnaire to ascertain whether the client needs to consult their GP before embarking on an exercise programme and establish their current fitness level. After completing the questions, we agree a timetable of activities.
 

Do you think there is an overall lack of services for blind and partially sighted people?  

Services for people with sight loss have been gradually increasing over time, however, as well as the need for specialist services for VIPs, I believe in the social model of disability and encourage all manufacturers and service providers to consider accessibility for all disabilities when reviewing and designing products and services.
 
In the fitness industry, accessible design mainly focuses on wheelchair users. There are sometimes adjustments for blind and partially sighted people, with easy-to-see yellow levers for adjustments on cardio machines and some gym machines have tactile buttons.
 
I am very passionate about the need for accessible gym equipment. Rica, a UK research charity that helps businesses improve their services for older and disabled customers, is working in partnership with Metro Blind Sport to researching inclusive gym equipment. A vital part of the research will be to consider the usability of the screen interfaces on electronic fitness equipment and also the possibility of voice output, which will benefit many other users of gym equipment.
 
Source: This article appeared on the Metro Blind Sport website and was republished with their permission.
 

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