Physical impairment no barrier to achievement at Steadward Centre

Bob Coyne’s life changed when he was diagnosed with MS, but thanks to UAlberta’s innovative adapted fitness centre, his life is changing again—for the better.


In the aftermath of a life-altering multiple sclerosis diagnosis just weeks earlier, Bob Coyne remembers the uncertainty he felt when he was told the physiotherapy he had been undergoing to help with the disease was complete.

“I said ‘OK, now what?’”

A year and a half later, seated at a leg extender with what athletes would recognize as the calm that comes before a weightlifting storm, Coyne revealed that before that fateful question, he had never heard of the Steadward Centre for Personal and Physical Achievement.

“Now I have to say it was life-changing to be able to come here.”

In an effort to stave off some of the major symptoms of MS, the staff at the centre created a customized fitness plan to help Coyne maintain and build strength and balance. More than the physical improvement, Coyne says the psychological transformation has paid the biggest dividends.

“There is no judgment here. You get to know everyone and it becomes like a family in a way.

“It is basically a way of life.”

It wasn’t long before Coyne was coming three times per week, and that was before the centre opened its new location last May, as part of the university’s $60-million Physical Activity and Wellness Centre.

Expanding accessibility

The new 17,000-sq.-ft. facility—up from 3,500 sq. ft.—expands the centre’s adapted physical activity programs and provides better access to accommodate more participants. Upwards of 1,200 people with impairment are expected to use the centre this year.

That sort of accessibility would have been unheard of when the centre, founded by Robert Steadward in 1978 as the Canadian Research and Training Centre for Athletes with Disability, originally opened in two small limited-accessibility rooms in the Van Vliet Building.

But from those humble beginnings, a level of adapted fitness programming has been developed that is unrivalled, said centre director Karen Slater.

“(Edmontonians) are the only people in Canada who have this level of adapted fitness programming,” she noted. “Other places may have one or two similar initiatives but don’t serve the breadth of people with impairment in this way.”

That expansiveness shows in the centre’s renown as a hub for high-performance athlete and coach development in parasport, its vast array of children’s programs and the use of functional electrical stimulation (FES) cycling. This technology employs a series of surface-level electrodes that activate leg muscles in a way that elicits a functional leg movement allowing participants to see their legs moving and participate in cycling or rowing exercises.

‘Everything we’re trying is better than traditional methods’

But what makes the centre truly stand out is the research component.

Dave Collins, a professor in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, is using FES technology on people with a complete spinal cord injury to find the optimal way to produce muscle contraction to avoid muscle fatigue, so they can get the full benefit of exercise.

This is the first time it’s been tested on people with complete spinal cord injury while they are riding the bike,” said Collins, adding that the Steadward is not only a recruitment centre, but also allows them to do research on site. “Basically, everything we’re trying is better than traditional methods.”

Another research project by researcher Donna Goodwin has Steadward Centre participants, staff and graduate students examining how disability images are used and misused in representing the disability community. This scrutiny led to the creation of a new visual narrative designed by people with impairment to help change the way people with disabilities participating in sport and exercise are seen in the media.

“We are always working to develop a more diverse field of research, and because of that we’re able to attract researchers from across Canada and around the world,” said Slater.

Reaching out across the province

The Steadward Centre also works with dozens of municipally run facilities in and around Edmonton to ensure they’re more accessible and that their staff are trained to meet the needs of patrons with disabilities. Since 2008, the centre has supported more than 300 people in transitioning to community facilities of their choice.

“That reach is now trickling across the province. We have now supported individuals to feel empowered and independent and have the right to go into a fitness facility, and know how to use it and know what to expect to use, and demand that they should have access,” said Slater.

It also becomes a way of life for many of the 250 volunteers, most of whom are kinesiology students completing their community service-learning component.

“Without the Steadward Centre you wouldn’t have this training ground where these young professionals—who are headed out across the province to become teachers, coaches and recreation professionals—have such understanding and philosophy around inclusion in physical activity,” said Slater.