Showcasing physical abilities of individuals with multiple sclerosis: A transformative experience


Context: Prevailing assumptions of disability can be altered when exposed to individuals with disability acting in ways that challenge common perceptions. Given that individuals with disabilities are often judged on their 'imperfect' bodies, exercise participation by these individuals may exemplify a behaviour that challenges dominant beliefs regarding disability. Purpose: To explore this avenue for social change, this study qualitatively examined the impact of being a fitness trainer or bystander for an adapted physical exercise (APEX) program for individuals with multiple sclerosis (MS). Method: APEX fitness trainers (n=6) and bystanders (n=8) completed semi-structured interviews related to their experience with an APEX program for individuals with MS. Participants witnessed individuals with MS complete cardiovascular, strength, balance, and flexibility training. Verbatim transcripts of audio-recorded, semi-structured interviews were analyzed using inductive content analysis. Results: The impact of witnessing an APEX program for individuals with MS was depicted through two broad categories: (1) transforming the person, and (2) transforming disability. Subcategories within 'transforming the person' included recognizing abilities in disability and altering perceptions of personal abilities. Subcategories within 'transforming disability' included building strengths through challenges and subscribing to a social model. Discussion: Showcasing abilities of individuals with MS identified capabilities that exist outside common perceptions of disability, and increased gratitude for one's personal abilities. Transforming disability into an opportunity to build strengths, such as resilience, along with the adoption of a social model of disability, led to individuals with MS being identified as "like anyone else", as disability was not evidenced in the person-environment interaction.