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New program aims to change attitudes and improve health for young people with disability

Photo: Australian Physiotherapy Association
A ground-breaking new program aims to change attitudes towards disability, while improving the physical and mental health of young people with disabilities through exercise. 

While people of any age who have a disability face various challenges when it comes to keeping active - for young people, those challenges are significantly more complex.

“Young people with disability have a lower life expectancy,” says Dr Nora Shields, Professor of Clinical and Community Practice, School of Allied Health, La Trobe University.

“They also have a higher risk of having co-occurring impairments such as pain, fatigue, or obesity, plus a higher risk of physical health issues, for example diabetes or osteoporosis.”

Younger people with disabilities also have a higher risk of psychosocial health conditions, ranging from sleep problems and anxiety to isolation and depression.
“One of the key differences in working with young people with disability is that you want to avoid decline in their physical and social health,” says Dr Shields.

“So, maximising their health to prevent secondary health complications later in life, as they are at a higher risk of having secondary health conditions due to their disability.”

Research shows that exercise plays significant role in managing both the physical and psychological complications associated with disability.

Unfortunately though, young people with disabilities are faced with numerous barriers when it comes to taking part in exercise based activities.

“The barriers they face are complex and multifactorial,” says Dr Shields.

“They include personal, social, environmental, program and policy barriers.

“However, two key barriers which young people with disability face, highlighted to us in our research were, one, the need for support and, two, programs that were designed specifically for them.”

Research also suggests that physiotherapy students’ attitudes towards people with disability are less positive than students from other health disciplines, possibly due to a lack of exposure to disability during their training.

Dr Shields’ research, along with extensive community feedback, has culminated in the development of FitSkills, an evidence based program for young people with disability, which pairs participants with student physiotherapist mentors. 

“The key feature of the program is that we match a young person with a disability with a student mentor from their community and the pair exercise together at their local gym,” says Dr Shields.

The development of the program involved consultation with young people with disability and their families.

“They told us what the main problems were and then when we tested a possible solution in a clinical trial, they told us that it worked for them and that they wanted to continue to participate in the program.

“FitSkills is based on a decade of research. We conducted a series of qualitative studies, randomised controlled trials and a feasibility study to develop the concept and collect evidence it was effective.”

Young people with disability aged between 13 and 30 years are encouraged to contact the FitSkills program team at La Trobe University Melbourne directly to discuss their goals, in order to establish a program and find a suitable mentor. 

“The student mentors are there to support the young person with disability to exercise.

“They are not there as a personal trainer. The students must exercise too.”

Dr Shields says the program offers a win-win scenario for both the young person with disability and the student mentor.

“The young people with disability gain benefits in their physical health and quality of life.

“They also tell us that participating in the program instils confidence and helps them gain independence.

“For the student mentors, the program changes in a positive way how they understand disability.

“Students also report developing  general and specific professional skills that benefit them as a future health professional.

“The experience gets them to consider working with people with disability in their future careers.”

The FitSkills program will soon commence a new trial in Melbourne involving the recruitment of 160 young people with disability and 160 student mentors across 8 gym sites.

“The aim is to scale up the program and  translate it into ongoing community practice.

“We have received funding from NHMRC and are working in collaboration with seven partner organisation DHHS, YMCA Victoria, Cerebral Palsy Support network, Down syndrome Victoria, Disability Sport and Recreation, Joanne Tubb Foundation and the City of Boroondara.

“The overall aim of the program is to increase participation in physical activity and exercise among youth with disability.”


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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications ( and a children's author.