Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes

Jul 27, 2022 | by Network

If you want your fitness facility to be more inclusive of, and inviting to, people with disability, what better way than to have personal trainers or customer service staff who also have a disability, asks disability advocate Caitlin Syer.

This feature is a companion piece to the article The Language of Disability which you can read here.

Have you ever heard the term ‘walk a mile in my shoes’? I have an intellectual disability and I wish people could spend a day walking in my footsteps.

As a young person who lives with an intellectual disability, I challenge everyone to take some time out and think about spending a day in the life of a person living with a disability.  

My name is Caitlin, I’m a disability advocate. I live in Melbourne and sit on the Victorian Disability Advisory Board and work as a Customer Service Officer at a large council fitness facility in Melbourne. My goal is to improve the lives of people living with a disability. 

Australia’s current context 

In Australia one in five people, 4.3 million, have a disability. Every two hours, a child is diagnosed with an intellectual disability.  and 3% of Australians have an intellectual disability1.

People with disabilities continue to be one of the most excluded, neglected and isolated groups in Australia. Australian Network on Disability is a great resource if you would like more statistics.

My story

I have an intellectual disability, I hope to use my experience of living life with a disability to improve life for others, especially around employment, travel, and social acceptance.

I attended a mainstream primary school but was moved out of that system into a specialised secondary school at year 7. This was my first taste of segregation, a segregated school led to a segregated life.

We like to use the word ‘special’: special school, special bus, special education, but there really isn’t anything special about it, to me special means segregated.

What is ableism?

Ableism is favouring neurotypical people and the exclusion and devaluation of people living with a disability or those who are neuro-divergent. Although sometimes ableism may not be intentional, in the same way people may argue that racism and sexism are sometimes unintentional, it is no less harmful.  

For instance, media stories can use words that communicate disability as a burden, something to be overcome, or something that needs fixing. Ableism, along with other forms of discrimination, is a human rights issue and should be stomped out.

Disability and employment 

When I finished my years of schooling, I didn’t have the certificates or education that others had, which made it hard to find a job, and a career seemed out of the question.

I wanted to be accepted in the community and work in a job I loved with all types of people, because I am not defined by my disability

In my ‘special’ school we were taught everyday household skills, but no knowledge of subjects and processes that would be necessary for careers. I feel like I missed out on an education.

The option that was often presented to me was specialised employment. These are places where people with mostly intellectual disabilities work together, usually in packaging.

I wanted to be accepted in the community and work in a job I loved with all types of people, because I am not defined by my disability. I have a voice and I have lived experience; I know if I can find the right path, guidance and support I will be a contributing member of society and any workplace, and can help create more user-friendly systems for others. 

I feel lucky that, through my advocacy and persistence, I have found work. I love my job and am still learning to find my place in this world.

We have a lot of customers and members with disabilities that use our fitness facilities, and I feel that having at least one person on staff with a disability is an advantage. I often notice processes or procedures that can be improved or made more user-friendly, as I can relate to the barriers that others may not see.

People with disability want to see themselves represented in company’s advertising and staffing and be included in all aspects of life. Being on staff acts to educate others on inclusion for both work colleagues and gym users. The more people with disability are included in workplaces, and out and about in society, rather than living segregated lives, the more we can all learn about diversity and inclusion and start to break down long held barriers.

Recognising and removing ableism

So what can you do about ableism? I encourage you to look for it, and when you see it, call it out. We have a poor record in Australia, people with disability are more likely to experience poverty, live in poor quality housing, and have low levels of education.

Low levels of literacy can make work life challenging. But based on my experiences, here are some things that workplaces can do to help remove ableism:

Make meetings accessible 

Think about the way meetings are run. Is the information accessible to all? Is the language easy to follow? Can you use multiple ways to get information across, e.g. pictures? Can everyone in your team follow group chats?

The best thing to do is ask, don’t assume. Make sure everyone in a team is included, this will lead to better productivity and a mix of ideas and innovations will come from this. 

Simplify forms and documents

One of the areas I really battle with at work and in daily life is reading and filling in forms and documents.

When creating or writing documents, think about the different users, the level of education the user may have, and then write so everyone can access the information. This will not only help people like me, but people who have English as a second language.

Anyone who’s tried filling in an application for a job or mortgage will know it’s not easy for most people. So imagine if you have had a low level of education – this immediately creates an additional barrier for me to be included in general life.

Making forms easy to read, easy to use, navigate and in plain English would help so many. Is your facility’s sign up process easy to understand and fill in?

Support flexibility

I have dyspraxia which affects my coordination. Tasks need to be broken down so I can follow them, I won’t remember or I’ll get confused if you give me tasks that have more than about three steps at a time. 

I also find it extremely difficult to sit through a typical eight-hour office shift, but I’m guessing that many neurotypical people are also less productive when they sit down for a straight eight hours!

In my case, I require short but regular breaks. Being able to choose how to allocate my break is beneficial to my work. Rather than having one hour off for lunch I work best with many shorter breaks. Everyone will be different but allowing flexibility certainly makes for a more supportive work environment.

Be an ally

A lot of people with intellectual disabilities do not struggle with the same things I struggle with, and therefore may be very good with the things that challenge me most – i.e. numbers and writing!

Having a learning disability does not mean you have a set number of skills or struggles, it’s very individual.

The key points to take away from this is that people with a learning disability have the same rights to a full-time job or career that they love and to have a social life like anyone else. We want the same things in life and to be treated the way you would treat anyone else. For too long it’s been the norm that people without a disability assume that people with disability don’t have career aspirations, they either don’t work or only have volunteer roles. This needs to change. If you want to bring more people with disability into your fitness facility what better way than to have personal trainers, customer service staff who also have a disability. You may need to look at the recruitment process to make sure this can happen!

At the end of the day ableism is just a word that has no place in our society. I hope this article will encourage you to speak up when you see ableism. The best way we can move forward is by building allies and creating inclusive workplaces. If we are all looking out for – and calling out – ableism, the world and our fitness facilities will become more inclusive.


 1. Disability expectations, investing in a better life, a stronger Australia

Caitlin Syer

Caitlin lives with an intellectual disability and dyspraxia. Currently employed as an assistant at Department of Premier and Cabinet, she also sits on the Disability Advisory Committee for Knox Council and is active in advocacy. In collaboration with group fitness legend Marietta Mehanni, Caitlyn and her mother, Carol Syer, created an instructor training workshop called Enable to empower instructors with the confidence and knowledge to teach group classes for adults and children with intellectual disabilities. mariettamehannieducation.com/enable

Network is an education subscription service that offers a broad range of upskilling courses for fitness and wellness professionals. Established in 1987, Network has played a pivotal role in the continual evolution of the fitness industry.

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