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Using a Fitness Center Does Not Have to be an Exercise in Frustration: Tips for People with Mobility and Visual Disabilities

1. Introduction

You know you should be more active. You would like to find a usable fitness center, some times called a health club.  The process of looking for a fitness center can be trying. Sometimes it does not seem to be worth the effort. Maybe you joined a fitness center in the past but did not know how to deal with the barriers you experienced, so you stopped going.

1.1 Recognizing the Barriers

Past frustrations should not stop you from using a fitness center. Yes, there are barriers, but there are also solutions. Some of the common barriers experienced by people with disabilities 1,2 include:

  • The fitness facility is not physically accessible

  • The facility’s equipment and group classes are not accessible or not usable

  • The staff does not have education and training about disability or accessibility issues

  • The staff and some members have negative attitudes about people with disabilities

Some of the facility’s policies and procedures discriminate against people with disabilities

Have you experienced any of these problems? How can you deal with these barriers and make using a fitness center easier? How can you get fitness centers to make changes?

Managers and owners of fitness centers are beginning to realize that in order to stay in business they can’t appeal only to those who are young, thin, fit, and who have no activity limitations. More diverse groups of “real” people are using fitness centers, including older adults, obese people and others who have never before exercised. This changing user group and customer-base is beginning to make fitness centers offer a more welcoming environment for people with disabilities. But many owners and operators of fitness centers are still not aware of the barriers that make using their facilities difficult for people with activity limitations. They are not yet designing their centers to provide equipment and features that are usable by people with a wide range of abilities and needs.

Rimmer, James H., Riley, Barth, Wang, Edward, Rauworth, Amy, and Jurkowski, Janine. (2004). Physical Activity Participation Among Persons with Disabilities:  Barriers and Facilitators.  American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 26(5), 419-425.

Rimmer, J. H. (2005). The Conspicuous Absence of People with Disabilities in Public Fitness and Recreation Facilities: Lack of Interest or Lack of Access? American Journal of Health Promotion, 19, 327-329.

1.2 How This Article Can Help You

This article describes some of the barriers experienced by people with mobility and visual disabilities when they use fitness facilities and it shows you ways to remove or reduce these barriers. It explains your right to use an accessible fitness facility and teaches you how to advocate for changes. This article provides specific information for people with visual disabilities and mobility limitations.

The following sections offer you practical tips, questions to ask, places to go for more help, and ways to make fitness centers more accessible. The article describes many low or no cost solutions that can be used right away, and also gives you resources and information to help you work with fitness centers toward getting even better solutions over the long term.

1.3 Know Your Rights

Fitness centers are covered by a law called the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)3. Like other public places, fitness centers must provide equal access to the facility for people with disabilities. They must provide accessible parking, entrances, restrooms, paths of travel, signage, etc. In addition, they must not discriminate against anyone because of disability. This means, for example, they cannot deny service or refuse membership to people with disabilities.

The ADA requires that privately owned fitness centers built after 1992 must follow specific design guidelines the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG). Centers that were built before 1992 must remove barriers when it is “readily achievable” (That is, if it is easy to do and can be done without much difficulty or cost4). The size of the facility is considered when deciding what changes it needs to make. For example, a small private health club might not be able to remodel a locker room to make it accessible, but a facility, owned and operated by a large company, would have the financial resources to do so.

As a fitness center user, you have the right to ask the center to remove barriers that make it harder for you to use the facility. The ADA law can only be enforced if you bring it to the attention of the fitness center’s staff and owners. If you see a problem, you have to tell someone who has the power to make changes. Often they are not aware that barriers exist or they may not think there is a problem because no one has ever brought it to their attention.

When you tell fitness center staff about the barriers you find, it is helpful to be prepared with ideas on how to reduce or remove the barriers. This is especially true when discussing the legal ADA requirements. You may want to have an ADA checklist and other materials that explain the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) so the fitness center will understand what they may need to do to remove the barriers.

ADA Resources

Fitness Center Accessibility Resources

3 Fitness centers that are funded by local or state government are covered under Title II of the ADA.  Privately owned fitness centers are covered under Title III.

4 Americans with Disabilities Act: Questions and Answers. (2002) Retrieved on September 15, 2007 from United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division Web site: http://www.ada.gov/q%26aeng02.htm


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