March 15, 2012, marks an important date for fitness facilities when it comes to updates to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). New requirements from a 2010 update of the ADA go into effect on that date, and those requirements affect fitness facilities with and without pools.

The ADA was created in 1990 by the Department of Justice as a federal civil rights law to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities, now affecting more than 50 million Americans—nearly 18 percent of our population. The 1990 standards set minimum requirements for facilities according to their market segment. The majority of fitness facilities fall under Title III—Public Accommodations and Commercial Facilities. The requirements included minimum heights for countertops and light switches, signage, bathroom fixture selection, walkway widths, railings and flooring choices. These requirements were an effort to make public facilities more accessible to people with disabilities. Since that time, numerous experts along with people affected by disabilities and concerned business owners lobbied for changes. As a result, the 2010 standards were created.

For health clubs with pool facilities, new standards under the 2010 Accessible Pool–Means of Entry and Exit portion of the act require owners and operators to meet minimum requirements for new construction and alterations of swimming pools relating to pool lifts and/or sloped entries depending upon size. This requirement also affects existing pools, which must have barriers removed when “readily achievable” to reach compliance. Although these requirements will have a big impact on pool programs within the fitness industry, they are of little concern to facilities without aquatics.

However, March 15, 2012, also marks the date that all fitness facilities, whether or not they have aquatics, must be in compliance with the ADA 2010 Standards for Accessible Design. For the most part, the 2010 standards do not affect pre-existing facilities that are not performing any new construction or alterations. Existing facilities are considered to be in compliance if they meet the 1990 standards, also referred to as “safe harbor.” The one exception to this rule is items in the 2010 standards that were not included in the 1990 publications. Such is the case with exercise equipment.

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The new ADA standards state that a fitness facility must ensure at least one of each type of exercise equipment is accessible to people with disabilities. This requirement means that every piece of equipment, unless an exact duplicate of the same model exists, must be accessible. For example, if a facility has two lines of 15-piece circuit equipment, even if two target the same body part, all 30 pieces must be placed in a way that they can be used by someone with a disability. In short, each piece needs a space available (minimum 30 inches by 48 inches) for either forward or parallel “position for transfer” (space required for someone with a wheelchair room to enter and exit the equipment).

So how will this affect the fitness industry? Normally, facilities are required to remove any barriers that make the facility inaccessible to those with disabilities, assuming it is “readily achievable,” which means that the business would not endure any serious hardships (monetarily or otherwise) by removing the barriers. Since compliance for these new requirements involves minimal resources other than moving equipment, it easily fits into the readily achievable definition, which means it is a requirement for almost all fitness facilities, both new and pre-existing.

Not complying with these requirements can be expensive. The Department of Justice can seek monetary damages and civil penalties up to $55,000 for a first offense and up to $110,000 for each subsequent offense. In addition, many states allow individuals to directly sue businesses for discrimination outside of the Department of Justice. This means fitness facilities can be sued by one or more individuals for any violation.

I recommend that if you have not already done so, you should analyze the 2010 ADA standards and reach compliance to limit your liability from potential lawsuits and to be more welcoming of people with disabilities.

BIO

Kurt Broadhag, MS, CSCS, LEED AP, is a fitness professional with more than 15 years of experience in personal training and club design. He is president of both K Allan Consulting, a firm specializing in health club design and management, and 23D Gym Design, which develops both two- and three-dimensional fitness center layouts. Broadhag can be reached at kbroadhag@kallanconsulting.com.