Blind community struggles for increased fitness access


Peter Slatin, who lost his vision as a result of macular generation and retinitis pigmentosa, travels around the city with his guide dog, Roya. Photo: Alexandra Levine.

Peter Slatin, who lost his vision as a result of macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, travels around the city with his guide dog, Roya. Photo: Alexandra Levine.

“At what point is [my blindness] my responsibility, and when does it become society’s responsibility?” asks Peter Slatin, who lost his vision as a result of macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.

Slatin, 60, a director at Ski for Light, which promotes outdoor recreation for blind and visually impaired cross-country skiers, says he tries to stay as active as possible because there is a correlation between his physical fitness and how comfortable he feels in the world. But like many others in his position, Slatin, who lives on the Upper West Side, hasn’t had much luck at local gyms; fitness accessibility for the blind and visually impaired is problematic around Manhattan.

“It’s awful,” he said. “Sometimes when I get off a machine, I can’t find my way out of the gym. I once started tripping over machines. I started calling out for help, and a guy working out had to get off his equipment to help me. It’s frustrating, and it wasn’t fair to him or to me.” In some cases, when Slatin asks gym employees for assistance, they become disgruntled, as though he is taking them away from their jobs.

Selis Manor, located on West 23rd Street in Chelsea and owned by The Associated Blind Housing Development Fund Corporation, is Manhattan’s only residence specifically for the blind and visually impaired. While there are more than 10 gyms within a 10-block radius of Selis – among them New York Health & Racquet Club, Crunch, Blink Fitness, Equinox and SoulCycle – none of these gyms offer services that cater to blind or visually impaired clients.

Selis offers its own exercise program for its 200 tenants in part because “many gyms in the neighborhood are not blind accessible,” said Natasha DeLeon, volunteer coordinator and job coach for Selis Manor’s VISIONS, a non-profit rehabilitation and social service agency for the blind. The in-house classes include fitness, cultural dance, line dancing, samba, zumba, cabaret, yoga and meditation, said DeLeon. Shannon Stanczak, who has been a fitness instructor at Selis for 14 years, says her students skew older – the majority are in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s.

“Inside Selis, it’s great,” Stanczak said of the building’s blind-sympathetic gym, which has braille markers on and around the equipment. “But outside Selis and VISIONS, there need to be more places where these people can go.”

Anthony Butler, 26, who volunteers in the front office at Selis, went blind six years ago after being shot in the head by a 16-year-old during an altercation on a Bronx street. “This is the first year I’ve really tried to embrace my blindness,” he said, so he tries to stay as fit as possible by biking and lifting weights at least four times per week. But “the gyms in the community [near Selis] don’t have services for blind people, so it’s difficult to go on your own,” said Butler. “You’d need to pay for a personal trainer, which is so much of an inconvenience; we have to wing it.”

The Lighthouse Guild, which has evolved from The New York Association for the Blind Inc. founded in 1905, is a New York-based organization that provides support and treatment for vision loss. Lighthouse focuses primarily on vision rehabilitation, healthcare services, community outreach and education, but it also offers training in techniques to properly assist blind clients.

Dr. Richard Baluran, a physical therapist supervisor at Lighthouse, feels it is difficult for a commercial gym to consider these special populations. “It’s a safety issue,” said Baluran. “People who are blind are at risk for falls, and there’s a certain degree of anxiety from gym staff because they’re afraid the patient might fall and they’ll be sued.”

“If you have a gym, you’re running a business,” said Richard Traum, founder and president of Achilles International, “and gyms think they’ll have more work, liability and issues” when blind or disabled people become a consideration.

Achilles is a non-profit organization that supports and trains disabled runners in 70 countries. The hope is that by focusing on athletics – including running, swimming and biking – and increasing disabled individuals’ physical strength, these people will become more comfortable, confident and inspired in their daily lives. The program is funded by more than 100 corporate sponsors as well as by individual donors. Traum, 73, founded Achilles after being the first above-the-knee amputee to complete the New York City marathon in 1976.

Achilles has signed up 244 runners for the November 2 New York City marathon, and nearly 50 of those people are blind or visually impaired, according to Traum. For blind athlete Chrispin Wilkinson, 67, this will mark his 22nd marathon. “The doctor told me either I’ll outlive my blindness, or my blindness will outlive me,” said Wilkinson, whose goal is to cross the finish line in under four hours.

Butler has been running with Achilles since May – he ran the Achilles Hope & Possibility race in July and the Fifth Avenue Mile on Sept. 13. To Butler’s knowledge, no Selis residents are training for the upcoming marathon, but he thinks that there are some tenants who would be interested in joining Achilles if they understood the program’s range. “The problem is some people think with Achilles, you have to run; they don’t realize you can walk.”

Selis residents “may not be aware that this kind of training [at Achilles] exists and they didn’t even know they have the potential to do it because they’re not exposed to it,” said Baluran, who has worked both with Achilles runners and Selis residents. “A lot of people who are visually impaired are very intimidated, insecure and fearful.”

Slatin agrees that intimidation may prevent some blind people from getting involved in athletic organizations like Achilles. Even the prospect of commuting from Selis to Central Park to work out might be daunting enough to deter people, he said, reiterating the need for more local fitness options.

But for Selis residents, the other major barrier to gym access is the cost, according to DeLeon, as area gyms do not offer special rates for people with disabilities. Under the city’s Section 8 Assistance program, Selis tenants must pay 30% of their monthly income towards rent and utilities, while the Department of Housing and Urban Development subsidizes the remaining balance. “When rent is 30% of your income, $80 is expensive” to cover a gym membership or personal trainer, DeLeon said. According to the National Federation for the Blind’s American Community Survey, approximately 60% of working age adults with vision loss were unemployed in 2012, with 31% living below the poverty line.

Baluran sees blindness, exercise and psychological well-being as inextricably linked, because vision loss is often accompanied by weight gain, diabetes, hypertension, strokes or depression. “If you are emotionally unstable and have a psychological diagnosis or no family support and then you go blind, you can easily get depressed and begin eating more,” he said, making exercise crucial for the population.

“It’s the vicious circle versus the virtuous cycle,” Slatin added. “There’s a higher rate of depression in blind people than in the general population – you feel misunderstood, inadequate, like you’re not contributing to society – and being unfit feeds into itself.”