Servicing People With Disabilities

When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed its Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities in 1991, most health club owners were stricken with the fear of having to upgrade their existing facilities. While many of the standards put in place are costly, they also allow individuals with disabilities to benefit from participation in the activities available in health and fitness centers, which are an integral part of the rehabilitative process for many disabled members.

If you want to expand your market, improve your reputation in the medical arena and provide the best service for all of your customers, then following the guidelines and standards will be a win-win situation for everyone. All new buildings and renovations must follow these standards, but existing facilities have not yet been required by law to make these changes. It is up to you to make these decisions that will favorably impact your facility in many ways.

Federal, state and local laws now mandate that individuals who are disabled be afforded access to and egress from all areas within a health and fitness facility. This refers to all pathways/walkways both inside and outside your club.

An easy way to test your club is to remember the key term "equally accessible" when determining if you are user friendly to all members. For example, you should have ramps instead of lifts wherever possible because ramps are usable by everyone, not just disabled individuals.

You want to make your members confident and comfortable about coming into your club by allowing them to be as independent as possible. Identifying what makes people independent in your club will help you exceed customer expectations and increase your credibility in the medical community.

ACSM's Health/Fitness Facility Stand-ards and Guidelines devotes a chapter to providing access to people with disabilities. You may want to adopt some of the following guidelines in your club, if you haven't already done so.

* Parking: A minimum of one parking space per 25 of the total number of spaces available must be for individuals with disabilities. These must be at least 96-inches wide and provide an adjacent 69-inch-wide access with appropriate signage indicating exclusive use of the parking space.

* Flooring: Floors within a facility must be at a common level throughout or must be accessible (connected) by pedestrian ramps, passenger elevators or special access lifts.

* Accessibility: An accessible pathway at least 36-inches wide must be provided in all activity areas in the club. This is often overlooked in equipment areas.

* Stairs: All steps, stairs and ramps must be stable, firm and slip-resistant. A strip of contrasting color must be on the top and bottom steps (for people with vision problems).

These are just a few of the guidelines for making your club equally accessible to everyone. By committing to these standards, you have the opportunity to change the lives of many people who previously would not have become members of your club, and you will further enhance your image in the medical community by simply showing that you care.

- Molly Foley is the director of ReQuest Physical Therapy and ReQuest Physical Therapy for Women, joint ventures with North Florida Regional Medical Center and the Gainesville Health and Fitness Centers.


A Brief Overview of the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act is wide-ranging legislation intended to make American society more accessible to people with disabilities. It is divided into five titles: Employment (Title I), Public Service (Title II), Public Accommodations (Title III), Tele-communications (Title IV) and Miscellaneous (Title V).

While the employment provisions of the ADA apply to employers of 15 employees or more, its public accommodations provisions apply to all sizes of business, regardless of number of employees.


Whom Does the ADA Protect?

The ADA's protection applies primarily, but not exclusively, to "disabled" individuals. An individual is "disabled" if he or she meets at least any one of the following tests:

* He or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of his or her major life activities

* He or she has a record of such an impairment

* He or she is regarded as having such an impairment

Other individuals who are protected in certain circumstances include those, such as parents, who have an association with an individual known to have a disability, and those who are coerced or subjected to retaliation for assisting people with disabilities in asserting their rights under the ADA.


Ways to Make Disabled Members Feel Comfortable

* Offer appropriate education for your staff

* Install a lift or ramp in your swimming pool

* Offer a variety of equipment (upper-body ergometers)

* Provide assistance to everyone on the exercise floor

* Ask your members for their feedback