One look at the Virginia G. Piper Sports & Fitness Center for Persons with Disabilities (SpoFit), and you can see that it is a welcoming place for people with physical disabilities.  And thanks to a grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Arizona, and the presence of a new instructor, the Arizona Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ACBVI) is bringing many people with visual disabilities to SpoFit to get in shape and enjoy a new sense of physical fitness.

ACBVI has always had a fitness class at its facility, but no equipment. Usually the class was just chair exercise because many of the Center’s clients are older and many others also have physical disabilities and/or cognitive challenges as well as vision loss.  However, when ACBVI Development Director, Diana Miladin, learned about SpoFit, she knew this was the opportunity to take their fitness program a giant leap forward. She contacted SpoFit and obtained permission to hold the Center’s fitness class at the new, state-of-the-art Center. One of the key factors that made this transition possible was ACBVI’s new volunteer fitness instructor.

Brendan Doyle is a native of Ireland who holds a Doctorate in sports medicine and a Master’s in the sub-specialty of sports injury. He is also a qualified physical therapist.  He has worked extensively in Europe and around the world with professional soccer and rugby teams and also with Special Olympics.

“It was February 6th, 2010, a day I will never forget”, Brendan said, referring to the day that changed his life forever.  He was in Heathrow Airport in London waiting for a flight to Arizona where he would join his wife and children. He went into a restroom, slipped on a wet floor and suffered a head injury that left him completely blind.

Brendan was angry and depressed. He thought his professional life was over. He felt worthless and wanted to give up. In Arizona, his doctor referred him to ACBVI so that he could get independent living skills training and counseling to help him adjust to his vision loss.  While he was receiving these services, Bobbie Lincks, who directs the Center’s Social and Recreation program, asked him if he would take over the fitness class, which was currently without an instructor. Brendan agreed to try it, even though he wasn’t sure he could do it.  In no time at all, using his knowledge and skills, Brendan’s confidence and spirit improved as did the fitness levels of the class participants, many of whom also had physical or cognitive disabilities and sometimes both.

When SpoFit came along, ACBVI’s Diana Miladin and Brendan recognized that if ACBVI’s clients could use the resources at SpoFit, their clients’ experiences and outcomes could be greatly enhanced.

When Brendan visited SpoFit, he said, “I’ve been in gyms all over the world and this is the best equipment I’ve ever seen. If I could have the resources of this facility at my disposal, I could really help my people improve their fitness levels and much more.”

In June of 2012, ACBVI began bringing a group of 13 clients to SpoFit for a fitness class once a week. Diana Miladin says, “When I saw their responses on day one, I knew there was no going back to chair exercise.”  The enthusiasm of ACBVI’s clients was overwhelming once they got into the facility and began working.  There were days when some didn’t want to leave and many asked if they could bring their lunches and do another hour or more afterward!

“The layout, the atmosphere, the approachable staff is just great. In a normal gym, people aren’t trained to work with people with disabilities, but your staff is. That gives people with disabilities self-respect, and that is the difference,” Brendan said. “People feel comfortable here and not self-conscious.”

Brendan utilizes all of the equipment at SpoFit, customizing the routines for each individual. Tasks range from utilizing treadmills and recombinant bicycles and other equipment to core work on mats, use of balance balls and weight training.  Several clients may be walking the track while others are using the equipment, and one client even asked for buddy ropes and a sighted assistant so he could run —something he had enjoyed before he lost a great deal of his vision.

“We have seen many clients just coming out of their shells, opening up more, since experiencing SpoFit. One client who wanted to work with weights has become a volunteer assistant to me and is training others in weights. Another client has started coming on his own on weekends to do his routine and recently started climbing the rock wall.  In addition to improving their health and fitness, we have seen that the SpoFit experience helps boost individuals’ self-esteem and confidence, as it has also done for me,” Brendan said.

While Brendan acknowledges that ACBVI’s clients connect to him because he’s blind, he also thinks they respond to him because of his background. He says, “They trust me because I’m like them, but they also trust me because of my background. They know I am educated about the body and with everything I do, I make sure that nobody can be injured.”

Brendan feels fortunate to be able to use SpoFit. It has given him an opportunity to become re-engaged with his profession and to improve his ability to help others. “When I’m working, I’m always thinking I can do a better job, but it’s just getting back into practice. My experience with ACBVI and now here at SpoFit has proved to me that my vision loss is not an impediment to my professional skill.”

ACBVI and Brendan hope to expand their program at SpoFit, adding at least one more fitness class and bringing in more of their Vocational Rehabilitation clients.  They would also like to introduce swimming and use of the hydrotherapy pool. There is already a waiting list.

“This has been a wonderful experience for us”, says ACBVI’s Diana Miladin. “SpoFit made it easy for us to make this program a reality and a success.  The SpoFit staff has been there for us in every way and given us a true feeling of welcome and partnership. We are looking forward to a long and happy collaboration.”

Story by Amanda Parmer