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How CrossFit Adapts for People With Disabilities

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The fittest on earth. The sport of exercise. Picking up heavy things, putting them down.  Burpees, box jumps and Olympic weightlifting moves. The world of CrossFit may seem like the last place you’d expect to find anyone with a disability. But in reality it is exactly where you should expect to find someone with a disability.

• What is Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome?
• What Are Common Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Symptoms?

As I’ve continued along my journey of being “differently abled” I’ve found one thing is true – people understand to the level of their perception. Those who love me, know me, or take the time to truly understand have learned that disability takes shape in many ways, it is not the same for everyone, and there are good days and bad days. Those who don’t invest the time in education on the topic may think disability is a cookie cutter diagnosis – one that remains static. As such, those individuals often expect people like me to “perform” disability – there is an expectation that each day will be the same, and that what they see from me matches their schema for what it is like to be disabled.

Sometimes the same is true, but in a different way. I often find the people who know me the best don’t see me as having a disability, which in some ways is a fantastic thing. These friends and family see my unlimited potential, a few differences that make me unique, but never anything that is life-limiting or a disadvantage. However, like when someone says “I don’t see color,” there is an inherent problem with this. The dictionary defines a disability as “physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities.” By that definition, as individuals move in to their 40’s, most of us have something that doesn’t work well – so in turn we may all have a disability – a sensitive stomach, migraines, etc. I believe it is how we opt to let these things define us that changes a disability into either a disadvantage or a unique approach to the world.

For the past five years I’ve participated in the extreme sport of CrossFit, finally finding a permanent home at a small box (as our gyms are called) with a set of unique coaches who do not shy away from differences. I remember walking into the box the first day and explaining my Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, its comorbidities, and the nerve damage and spinal cord issue it had opened me up to sustaining. Despite having no clue what any of that meant as an athlete, they welcomed me with open arms and told me we would figure it out – and boy did we. A few years later our box is home to several coaches with their adaptive endorsement, provided by Crossroads Adaptive Athletic Alliance, and multiple seated athletes.

How is this possible in a sport known for extremely chiseled abs, highly tuned athletic ability, and endurance unlike any other? Because in my experience, CrossFit is the most adaptable sport on the planet. If you register for a local softball league, take karate, or join a kickboxing class, there is typically one standard of doing things. The sport of CrossFit recognizes the unique abilities and areas of weakness of each athlete and incorporates that concept into the core of its program. CrossFit inherently adapts itself as a sport for “normal” athletes, not at their peak fitness, those nursing a weekend warrior injury, or someone who just isn’t as strong in a particular area. This is known as scaling, or making an exercise/movement/workout appropriate to the athlete’s level and ability.

An example of this might be a workout that has box jumps in it.  Not only are box jumps a highly ballistic movement, they are something the average human in their first exposure to CrossFit is unlikely to achieve. The “scale” or adaption on this for “normal” athletes is to step up on the box. This achieves the same outcome, replicates the movement, and exposes the athlete to the move until they progress. Ironically, this “scale” is the same for “normal” athletes as it is for someone with a disability such as myself. Depending on the day, my body, and how I am doing I either step up on the box independently or step up holding on to the rig (the equipment used for pull-ups and weightlifting) for stability if my left leg is dragging.  The adaption I had to make as a “disabled” or as we prefer “adaptive” athlete is essentially the same as a normal athlete who simply has not mastered the box jump maneuver.

Can’t walk? No problem; for seated athletes or those lacking the full use of their lower body, the move becomes a transition from wheelchair or floor to box, utilizing the arms, and then back again. As you can see and imagine from the above, in a box with 15 athletes working out, each one may be doing several variations on the movement – but all athletes compete together against themselves – and no one ever feels different for the adjustments they need to make. In this sport, the athlete who doesn’t have box jumps mastered is no different, nor is their workout any different, than the athletes who will never be able to complete a box jump due to a permanent disability.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in the CrossFit Open, an international competition amongst athletes where individuals complete standard workouts and are able to rank themselves against others. Crossroads Adaptive Athletic Alliance and WheelWod partnered to provide workout standards that were challenging but worked to adapt the released standards for each disability category.

I encourage everyone who has some sort of disability, be it permanent, progressive, minor, or major, to look at the sport of CrossFit as a way of gaining strength, independence, confidence, and seeing themselves as the equal of others. In the famous words of Albert Einstein, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” As I adapt everything in my life, I’d like to adapt that quote saying, “Everyone is an athlete, but if you judge a person on their ability to exercise in one one uniform movement, they will live their life seeing themselves as disabled, and thusly disadvantaged.” However, if you introduce a person to a sport where adapting and scaling is part of the norm, that person will come to see themselves as the athlete they are.

Originally published: May 9, 2017
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