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How Fitness Apps and Devices Are Failing People With Disabilities

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Recently I was offered a free membership in a fitness app that shall remain nameless. It was part of a promotion from another fitness-oriented digital product I am currently using. This app has no questions to determine if a person uses a mobility assistance device. No questions about health beyond age and weight or having a chronic conditions that could impact my ability to be “fit.”

While I work full time as a psychotherapist and health educator, and am a writer and a disability activist, I am not as fit as I was prior to my amputation in 2015. I have lived with multiple autoimmune illnesses and a deformed leg caused by a careless surgeon since I was 23, and now also deal with osteoarthritis and spinal deformities. I cannot do what a healthy woman my age can do. Like most of us, I have good days and bad days. I am slowly losing the weight I have gained since I returned to work and have limited time and energy to exercise. If I am going to be “coached” by a fitness app or device, I want them to take this into consideration.

Instead I am getting messages to “get active” that are not understanding of what “active” means for me. Since I had a stroke a few months ago, I am back using a cane to walk. I get prompts to walk more and walk faster. I get prompts to walk 10,000 steps a day. I know, and my primary care doc agrees, that 5000 steps a day is good for me and 6000 steps a day is exceptional. The app sticks to 10,000 steps a day as the only goal.

My experience of these apps is that they create a sense of shame, and shame does not increase health-promoting behaviors.

If you are creating a fitness app or device and you want to be inclusive, please do the following:

Include a question about the use of a mobility device. Include canes, crutches and both types of wheelchairs (manual and electric) when other relevant questions are asked.

Make sure your device can count steps taken using a cane, crutch and leg/arm motions that move a manual wheelchair. For example, my fitness tracker will pick up steps with a cane or crutch and even when I am in my wheelchair, but the health app on my phone does not include these movements in my step count.

Ask a general question about mental health issues that may impact fitness goals. If a person has a mental illness, issues with grief or loss, depression or anxiety, be gentle in your coaching. Do not shame people for not doing something another person needs prodding to do. Most of us deal with enough insecurity over our disabilities.

Allow users to opt out of anything that does not apply to them and still use the other parts of the app.

Get input from a wide variety of persons with disabilities and fitness levels in a beta test. Each of us has a unique body with unique challenges. We are the experts in how we can improve our lives. And if your app is only for people with able bodies and minds, say so up front so we do not spend our hard-earned money on your app or device.

A final note: I believe strongly that physical fitness is for everyone, and I am still making strides to improve my fitness level while also having self-compassion for reaching my goals at a snail’s pace. I also believe we can learn to eat healthy, stop smoking and using harmful substances. A person with a disability may never be able to meet the same standards as persons without a disability, but the effort will lead to better physical and mental health and greater happiness. My advice is to set reachable goals and not goals imposed by an app that does not understand our needs.

Getty image by Prykhodov.

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