Fitness coach sets sights on helping visually impaired people exercise
Dawn Wells teaches an exercise class April 21 for the blind and visually impaired at her fitness studio in Covington. She does such classes free of charge once a month. She also runs the Angel Eyes Fitness and Nutrition nonprofit. CONTRIBUTED BY REBECCA BREYER
Sara Randall is blind in her right eye. Straining with her left, she can just barely make out a hand in front of her face.
Visual impairment has been a struggle for the Atlanta resident going on 40 years — an affliction that began in her 30s and has persisted through decades despite 14 different eye surgeries.
One of the unique aspects about being blind, Randall said, is that when people see you in public, they want to help.
While their hearts are in the right place, Randall said, most don’t know how to interact with the visually impaired — without permission, they might grab you by the arm to lead you across the street or try to tell you where to go — much less work with and help them.
Fitness instructor Dawn Wells has dedicated the past several years of her life to trying to understand the struggles of individuals like Randall, as well as researching what it's like to be blind and helping the visually impaired get fit and stay healthy. Wells is the owner of a fitness studio in Covington, but she also runs a new nonprofit, Angel Eyes Fitness and Nutrition, that aims to provide specially targeted and tailored fitness and nutrition programs for blind and visually impaired individuals in the metro Atlanta area and beyond.
As part of Wells’ fitness programs, Lions Clubs International provides “guides” to help those who are blind or with visual impairment dance, flex, punch and even belly-dance their way through an hour-and-a-half lesson every month. Volunteer guides offer an arm to lean on as fitness class participants work out.
Wells is grateful that she’s able to teach and coach participants once a month free of charge, but said she wishes there was funding to allow for more frequent fitness lessons. So far, there have been only private donations to her organization, but she’s hoping to get funding soon from foundations.
One of the chief obstacles is securing funding for transportation to help get participants with visual impairment to and from the fitness studio or other locations where Wells holds classes.
“They come from all over,” Wells said, “and it would surprise you what they go through just to get to these classes.”
She said a person who is blind has to book special transportation at least two days in advance, and then, due to circumstances specific to their situation, getting to and from the studio can take as long as one or two hours. Plus, there’s often a wait after the class.
If Angel Eyes Fitness and Nutrition receives further funding, Wells hopes to find a way through business partnerships to streamline transportation for members of her fitness group so that she can hold classes more frequently and make transportation easier.
“The constant feedback we get is ‘We want more classes. We need more classes,’” Wells said. “… The biggest hindrance right now is that we need more funding to do this.”
Chris Hester, vice president of finance and operations at the Center for the Visually Impaired in Atlanta, said he is familiar with Wells and her nonprofit, and it is “fairly rare” for someone to have a fitness program like hers that is nonprofit and to be doing it “out of the goodness of her heart.”
While her nonprofit has been in operation only since 2017, Wells has been teaching fitness to the blind and visually impaired going on four years now.
“Zumba is visual,” Wells said, laughing. “I said to myself, ‘How am I going to do that?’ But we improvised, and we moved our bodies and had a great time.”
Several weeks later, Wells was asked to instruct a six-week series sponsored by the Georgia Libraries for Accessible Statewide Services — an organization that, according to its website, supports accessible services by promoting the use of assistive technology and materials for those with disabilities.
“Not only did I accept the offer, I was determined to perfect my technique this time around,” Wells said.
She’s been honing that technique going on four years now. She hopes to take the program nationwide eventually by using online video conferencing so that people can attend her classes without actually being there.
These days, Wells teaches classes with anywhere from one to 45 participants in her Covington studio as well as at varying locations around the metro Atlanta area.
Current classes include instruction on a wide range of programs, including free-moving cardio, flex and stretch with chairs, belly dancing, boxing and Pilates.
“I love being able to help them and for that hour and a half … because this is a real need for people who are blind or visually impaired,” Wells said. “They have nowhere else they can go to learn these techniques.”
She said sometimes those who are blind will try going to a regular gym, but that it’s “not safe. The typical gym is not set up for blind and visually impaired people.”
Added Wells: “With my class, they get to come together in a community environment with others like them, and they don’t have to feel self-conscious. The instruction is for them specifically, so it gives them the independence to follow along, and we have so much fun … it’s fun!”
“We just have the best time,” Randall said, adding that “a lot of people don’t know how to work with the visually impaired. It’s not their fault. They’ve just never been exposed to it. It’s hard for visually impaired people to go into an exercise program at a regular place. And having (Wells) do this for us means so much. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I appreciate and admire her for helping us.”
Wells said it’s more than merely helping those with visual impairment or blindness: