Visually impaired (VI) people enjoy the health benefits of exercise and would like to be more physically active, a new report by consumer research charity Rica shows. However, they find that the design of fitness equipment used in many gyms is a barrier to their taking part in exercise and call for both gym operators and equipment manufacturers to provide more accessible, inclusively designed equipment to help remove this obstacle.

The research project investigated the accessibility and ease of use of fitness equipment controls found on treadmills, exercise bikes, cross trainers and rowing machines.

Research was carried out by Rica with the support of Thomas Pocklington Trust and Metro Blind Sport. The project involved user experience testing of equipment by 20 blind and partially sighted people, followed by feedback from three focus groups and 20 individual interviews. The research was carried out between July and September 2017.

Rica also investigated what equipment, facilities and services gyms offer visually impaired people; trends in fitness equipment technology; and ways of working with manufacturers to develop more accessible fitness equipment.

In particular, the research project focused on:

  • the needs and experiences of blind and partially sighted people when using this equipment
  • the impact those have on people’s lives, health and fitness
  • the importance of control console design in meeting participants’ needs
  • visually impaired people’s experiences of using separate accessible audio and tactile controls

The participants welcomed the physical and mental health benefits of exercising in the relatively safe environment of a fitness centre, they told Rica researchers. However, they made some recommendations which could improve the experience for visually impaired people, including:

  • much wider use of audio output and voice-over technology in fitness equipment
  • the use of wireless technology
  • the ability to increase font size on the screens
  • tactile buttons and high-contrast colours on LED consoles
  • lever controls and/or control buttons on handlebars
  • improved layout, colour use, signage and lighting in leisure centres
  • trained staff to assist VI people in using equipment

People in the focus groups argued that VI-friendly adaptations would also improve going to the gym for many other users such as people with learning disabilities, people with different motor or sensory skills, and therefore further increasing the number of potential gym users.

Roy Smith, MBE, Director of Sports Development, Metro Blind Sport, says: 

“New voice-assistants like the Amazon Echo & Google Home have opened up a fantastic new world of possibilities for visually impaired people. The challenge now is for gyms, leisure centres and the fitness industry to provide audio and screen magnification on new gym equipment so more VI people like me, as well as older people, can have better access and can use the equipment independently.”

A copy of the Research Findings is available here as a PDF and here as a Word Document.

A copy of the full Research Report, ‘Inclusive Fitness Equipment for People with a Visual Impairment’, is available here as a PDF and here as a Word Document.