Health clubs are among the last public places in the United States to become broadly accessible to the physically disabled, say advocates for people who are blind, deaf or in wheelchairs. Some clubs lack the ramps and wide doors that they are required to provide — like schools, restaurants, theaters and office buildings — under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.
But even when health clubs have such basic accommodations, the disabled are often shut out because getting through the door is only the beginning. The exercise equipment must be accessible, too. Disabled exercisers face major hurdles at most gyms, according to a survey in November in The American Journal of Public Health, which looked at 16 for-profit and 19 nonprofit health clubs and concluded that all had significant problems. Some had obstacles that prevented disabled members from reaching parts of the club, a violation of the disabilities act. Others lacked equipment that could be used by people with disabilities or staff members who were willing to help such members.
New federal guidelines for enforcing the 1990 disabilities act, now under review by the Department of Justice, would mandate that health clubs provide a clear floor space of at least 30 inches by 48 inches around each type of weight-training equipment so people in wheelchairs can get to them. Swimming pools, depending on their size, would be required to have a ramp or a lift capable of lowering swimmers in their wheelchairs.
Still, while many advocates for the disabled praise the new recommendations as a step in the right direction, the majority of advocates say they don't go far enough. A Justice Department spokesman said the guidelines won't mandate, for instance, that clubs purchase equipment with Braille, or seats that swing out.
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