A look inside Split Second Fitness, New Orleans’ first gym designed for people with disabilities
The city of New Orleans isn’t known for being easy to get around if you have physical limitations. It can even be hard to find a place to work out. Except at one gym, specifically designed for people with disabilities. WWNO’s Alana Schreiber takes us inside.
This story has been lightly edited for length and clarity
Alana Schreiber: Mark Raymond Jr. didn’t know much about what life was like for people with disabilities. That was until 7 years ago.
Mark Raymond Jr.: Anyone’s life can change in a split second. Mine did on July 4, 2016 when a diving accident left me paralyzed from the chest down.
AS: He was 27 years old, on a boat in Lake Pontchartrain. At first, after the accident, he struggled, both physically and mentally.
MR: It was really disheartening. Especially that first year, as I found myself constantly looking back at the past and reliving the past. Wishing I was someplace else, or wishing I wasn’t alive at all.
AS: That was until Raymond Jr. took a trip to Sacramento and began going to a fitness center specifically made for people with physical limitations.
MR: One day I was exercising with my trainer, and I was like ‘Man, I’m gonna open up a facility like this at home.’
AS: For three years, Raymond Jr. fundraised and advocated for a community wellness center for people with disabilities. He launched the Split Second Foundation — named for the instance his own life changed — and then he built Split Second Fitness on the corner of Gentilly Boulevard and St. Bernard Avenue.
MR: Exercise is important to everybody. It maintains our bones and our muscles and helps our cardiovascular systems and pulmonary systems. But for disabled people, they typically live a more sedentary lifestyle.
AS: The fitness center opened in early 2021. And there’s still no other place like it in New Orleans.
MR: It was critical for us to create a space that could specifically serve that ambulatory, disability need. Giving people living those lifestyles where they could get the proper cardio. And really challenge their systems.
AS: But it’s not just the bodily systems that are being challenged here. It’s the societal systems, too, that often tell people with disabilities what they can and can’t do.
I went to check out Split Second Fitness, and found Michelle Hernandez. She was working on her cardio and joint flexibility by using something that looks like a rowing machine, where you sit and pump your legs in and out. Later, she hopped into a standing frame – those are machines that help build leg strength and balance, something that’s not easy to do for people who use wheelchairs.
Michelle Hernandez: I looked for a gym for years that would let me come in and exercise. But as soon as you tell them you’re in a wheelchair or you’re not able to do everything on your own, they don’t let you in the doors at all.
AS: Hernandez said other gyms have told her she’s a liability because of her disability. But at Split Second, the equipment is designed for people like her. And the gym is staffed with exercise therapists who help clients in and out of the machines.
MH: When you’re in a wheelchair, and there's so much you can’t do, it’s wonderful to come somewhere, and there’s so much you can do.
AS: Access to somewhere that helps keep you fit is even more important when you consider the health cost of having a disability in Louisiana.
According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 22% of Louisianans with disabilities said they can’t afford to see a doctor. That’s roughly three times the rate for people without disabilities.
And even if they have insurance, access to physical therapy is limited, said Split Second exercise therapist Caroline Hughes.
Caroline Hughes: In the traditional health care model, physical therapists are seen in in-patient or out-patient rehab clinics. But after rehab clinics, there aren’t a lot of options.
AS: And even when clients are able to get the exercise and treatment they need, many still struggle to operate in a city known for potholes, uneven roads and outdated architecture.
Here’s client Ashley Speaks, who has MS and uses both a wheelchair and a walker.
Ashley Speaks: I would love to see smoother roads and sidewalks. I was talking earlier about how there are some places where the handicap ramp is around the back of the building. So it would take longer. So sometimes I just go up the stairs and have somebody else hold the walker.
AS: Raymond Jr., Split Second’s founder, knows that experience all too well, which is why he is now looking for more ways to make New Orleans more disability-friendly.
MR: I recently launched a campaign called Roll with Me, giving civic and political leaders the experience of rolling alongside someone in a wheelchair. And that experience has been to open their eyes and understand how important curb cuts are, how important smooth sidewalks are, transportation, accommodations, accessibility in hospitals.
AS: New Orleans still has a long way to go when it comes to being more accessible. But until then, Split Second will not only offer a space for exercise, but also a space to build community. Here’s client Ricky Franklin. I caught up with him on his very first day at the gym. He said he’s excited to try the arm bike and practice standing, but he also said one of his main reasons for joining was to meet people who are like him.
Ricky Franklin: I’m still meeting everybody, but it’s all great smiles and great vibes. It makes it more comfortable to know that people are feeling like me or in the situation that I’m in.
AS: Franklin had a spinal cord injury in 2021 when he was shot while leaving a club in New Orleans. He’s been using a wheelchair ever since. But already, joining this gym seems to be paying off.
RF: It feels like home already. Everybody’s smart, everybody’s willing to help, just like at home. I feel like it’s gonna be good.