Making Your Gym More Inclusive - Adaptive Climbing Edition

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Many climbing gyms across the country have moved well into their reopening plans. We’ve begun to see programs like youth teams and adult classes return to the gym, even if they do look a little different than before.

Several gyms have restarted their adaptive climbing programs and events too, and while many gyms are rethinking their operations to address the pandemic, it’s also a good time to revisit the topic of inclusivity. The business of ensuring your climbing gym is accessible and inclusive to climbers of all body types, backgrounds, and climbing abilities is not new to the climbing industry. However, we’re all still learning.

Making climbing gyms accessible and inclusive for climbers with physical disabilities goes beyond having an adaptive climbing program. It’s a start, but here are some other things to consider.

Establishing Safety Parameters for Adaptive Climbers and Athletes

Risk management is always the top priority at any climbing facility. No exceptions are made for those who can’t demonstrate competent belay technique or for those who break the rules. Adaptive climbers aren’t exempt from that either. All facilities have their own set of criteria that climbers must meet in order to belay in their gym.

Does your gym have a strict check box for your belay tests? If yes, does it consider adaptive athletes with upper or lower limb differences? According to Maureen Beck, adaptive athlete and 2018 Winner of the USA Paraclimbing Championships Upper Limb, belaying with limb differences is entirely possible and safe. She wrote about it in her blog.

Upper limb amputee with partial use of hands, or full use of elbows:

  • Top rope belaying should be no different, and can be done with a tube-styled belay device.
  • Lead belaying can be done with an assisted breaking device, such as the Petzl Gri-Gri or the CAMP Matik.

Lower limb differences:

  • For those who are able to stand, for example with a prosthetic leg, there is no difference in belay technique.
  • For those who are unable to stand, sitting is an acceptable alternative. While we might teach the young climbers not to sit down while belaying, it does not present any increased risk.

Educate your staff by setting clear parameters for adaptive climbers’ belay tests so they are not caught like a deer in headlights when asked to perform one! Everybody’s unique.

Adaptive Routesetting

Routesetters know that it is impossible to set a climb that fits everyone’s body type. That’s why gyms usually have a wide range of setters with different height, wingspan, and setting styles so there is always something for everyone.

The beauty of adaptive routesetting is – everyone benefits. You do not need to strip a wall or designate a special space for adaptive routes. They can be set anywhere in your gym, and climbers of all abilities can find something challenging about them.

If you’ve watched any videos from the paraclimbing world, you’ll know athletes with upper limb differences crush like any able-bodied climber, oftentimes even harder. What about sit climbers or climbers with a limited range of mobility?


  • Big holds, close together on overhung terrain. The typical climbing facility will have a range of difficulties on overhung terrain, most 5.8-5.10- climbs will allow sit-climbers to campus through it.
  • Redirecting the top-rope belay through draws will prevent a big pendulum if they fall.

Slab and Corners:

  • Ledges or large holds to allow ample mantling
  • Balance-focused rather than acrobatics-focused

A lot can be explored in this realm. Encourage your routesetters to watch adaptive climbers and experiment with different novel routes. Get creative! Introduce a different difficulty rating in addition to the YDS for those novel routes.

Community Involvement

Community involvement and education are key to inclusivity. It is not just about the adaptive climbers, but about bringing people of all experience levels and athletic backgrounds together. An able-bodied climber who watches a visually impaired climber will often be surprised by the astounding endurance they have as they feel out the moves described by their partner below, often through an earpiece. It brings the community closer together by uniting under one common passion: climbing.

  • Your facility could offer mentorship opportunities for staff, members, and volunteers through courses like Paradox Sports’ Adaptive Climbing Initiative that aims to improve rapport and approachability with people of different backgrounds while providing an intriguing challenge.
  • Teach staff and volunteers how to safely operate adaptive climbing safety equipment and mechanical advantage pulley systems.
  • Teach inclusive language and proper etiquette to volunteers, such as:
    • “People with disabilities” not “disabled people”
    • Curiosity is okay, but there is a fine line between curiosity and intrusiveness
  • Do not touch their assistive devices without permission
  • Consider hiring an adaptive coach if your gym has an intensive adaptive climbing program or club.
  • Facilitate community building, such as forming a Facebook group or weekly Adaptive Climbing Club.

Here’s a friendly reminder that accessibility and inclusivity can be hard to judge from an outsider’s perspective. Remember to listen, and to adjust and adapt as new information comes to light. This article is not meant to reinvent the wheel, but to gather pre-existing information and surveys already done on the subject compiling it for your ease.

More information and stories on adaptive climbing and inclusivity can be found at:

About the Author

Holly Chen Head ShotHolly grew up in Taiwan, a tropical island smaller than the state of Colorado where she often dreamed of living somewhere colder. She began working in publishing at a young age, authoring a National Best Seller in her home island at the age of 17 before moving across the Pacific to attend the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her professional interests lie in communications, brand strategy, and using written and visual storytelling to inspire creation and recreation.