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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

2. Tips to Improve Access

The barriers you find inside a fitness facility can involve the building itself, the equipment, the classes, and staff training and attitudes.  Some of these issues are covered by the ADA, others are not, but they all can affect how easy or difficult the facility is to use.

The solutions for removing fitness facilities barriers can be simple and low-cost or they can be more involved and high cost. All possible solutions are important to think about because you want to be able to use the center as soon as possible, and you may want to have the facility use a temporary solution while they work on getting a better one in place.

Many of the barriers mentioned in this article are not directly covered by the ADA Accessibility Guidelines, such as lack of awareness among staff members regarding access to equipment. Even so, you still have the right to ask for and suggest changes.

The idea of telling the fitness center staff about barriers you find and asking them to make changes can seem overwhelming or difficult. Breaking down the process may make it easier for you to manage.

2.1 What to Ask During Your First Visit

  • Take a tour of the facility and see if there are any barriers that will make it harder or impossible for you to do the exercise you want to do. If you see problems, tell the person who is taking you around and see if they have solutions already.

  • If the cost to join is too high for you, ask whether the center offers scholarships, sliding fee scales based on income, or other assistance programs. (You will be more likely to find such policies at YMCA’s or other public community fitness centers such as park and recreation programs.) 

  • Ask whether the facility will let you bring a companion to assist you at no additional cost.

  • Ask for a guest pass for a small daily fee or no cost so you can try-out the facility for a few days.

  • The center should not require anything special from you because of your disability that they do not require of every member. For example, they cannot make you get a doctor’s permission to be there.

2.2 Who to Talk to About Getting Changes Made

  • Decisions about simple changes are often made by fitness center staff, such as staff in the membership office, at the front desk, or in the exercise areas.

  • If you are asking for bigger changes, it is best to talk to the people who make high-level decisions, such as the manager or owner. Ask the staff the best way to contact that person. Is it by phone, letter or email?

2.3 Use a Universal Design Approach

  • Explain that making the changes you need would be helpful for many of their members. 5 Here are some points you can use:

    • Removing barriers could increase their membership. Making the facility more accessible can bring in new members who need these changes and might go elsewhere if they could not use this facility.

    • Removing barriers would make the facility more usable for everyone. Fitness centers that do not have barriers, and provide equipment and features that are usable by people with a wide range of abilities and needs make all members more satisfied and loyal. For example:

      • Larger bathroom stalls are easier for people who use wheelchairs and for people with children.

      • Easy to understand signs include text as well simple pictures and symbols, for people who have visual disabilities and for those who have difficulty reading.

      • Exercise equipment that is more accessible for members with disabilities is also easier for others to use including those who are new to exercise and older adults.

      • Equipment that can be used in a seated position can allow people with temporary injuries and conditions (for example, a runner with a leg injury) to maintain fitness.

2.4 Do Your Research and Offer Suggestions

  • Be prepared to offer suggestions on how to remove barriers.

  • Be familiar with what the ADA requires or know where to find more information.

  • Suggest simple, low cost solutions as well as bigger high cost solutions.

  • Know your resources, including where to find information on accessible equipment. (See Resources at the end of section 1)

  • Have this information ready to share with the facility’s staff.

2.5 Follow Up

  • Shortly after you speak with center’s staff, send a letter that describes in detail the changes you need or want. Also mention the possible benefits for the facility and include related helpful resources (see sample letter below).

  • When you visit the center again, talk again to staff and decision makers until you see changes. There is often a lot of staff changes and turnover, so if one person doesn’t respond keep trying until someone does.

2.6 Be Willing to File a Complaint

If the barrier you want the center to remove is covered under the ADA, you have the option of filing a formal, legal complaint with the United States Department of Justice. The process for filing a complaint is described on the Department of Justice website, http://www.ada.gov/enforce.htm

Sample letter

Month xx, xxxx


Mr. Gym Barrier

500 Easier Than You Think Street

Fix It, NOW 00000


Dear Mr. Barrier:

I am a wheelchair user and I am looking for a fitness center to join. I visited your fitness center on Month xx, xxxx and took a tour with Jim Fit.

I liked your facility, but I encountered some problems. I am writing to suggest possible solutions. Your center’s accessibility was generally good. It has an accessible entrance and accessible parking. However, I had difficulty maneuvering my wheelchair in the locker room between the benches and the lockers. The aisle should be at least 36 inches wide, and removing some of the benches might solve this problem. In addition, though the stalls in the restrooms were large enough, they were difficult to use without a raised toilet and grab bars. A raised toilet and grab bars could easily be added. The biggest issue I had was the lack of accessible exercise equipment. This would include equipment that I am able to use with my upper body, such as a hand cycle-type ergometer. I would also like to be able to use some equipment that doesn’t require me to transfer out of my wheelchair to use, such as strength training equipment with swing-away seats. I am enclosing information about accessible exercise equipment as well as how to make the changes in your restroom.

Please seriously consider purchasing equipment that that I can use, such as a hand cycle-type ergometer and equipment with swing-away seats. This new equipment, along with improvements to the locker room and restroom, would make your facility more accessible to people with disabilities and more compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. These improvements would also make your facility more attractive for others in the community and could increase your membership.

I look forward to hearing from you in the next four weeks.


Amy Advocate

1000 Speak-up Street

Fix It, NOW 00001


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