Disabled, and Shut Out at the Gym NYTimes Article

Discussion in 'Fibromyalgia Main Forum' started by ephemera, Feb 9, 2006.

  1. ephemera

    ephemera New Member

    This interesting article on disability is from today's New York Times. I've had a mixed bag of experiences at my local gym, mostly around water temperatures for CFS/FM. Lots of indifference when I remind them for only use of the pool, sauna & whirlpool I'm paying an amount equal to those who use lots of equipment & also attend exercise classes that require staff. For those of us with hidden disabilities vigilance & education will be necessary for us to have access too!

    February 9, 2006
    Fitness
    Disabled, and Shut Out at the Gym
    By ABBY ELLIN

    ALTHOUGH Libby Gratton lost her vision two decades ago, she never wanted that to hinder her ability to stay fit. But at five health clubs she visited, she was told she would have to hire a personal trainer to guide her around the equipment. Ms. Gratton couldn't afford a trainer, so except for an occasional walk with her husband she didn't work out. "I was discouraged but I understood they had a bottom line to worry about," she said. "I'm not one to make waves."

    Then about a year ago, Ms. Gratton found Contours Express in Leesburg, Fla., a branch of an international chain of women-only gyms, where Betty Aramino, the owner, offered to coach her for no extra fee. Today Ms. Aramino helps Ms. Gratton, 63, getting on and off weight machines and describes how to do calisthenics. Occasionally Ms. Aramino accompanies her to aerobics classes, guiding her arms. Ms. Aramino had never assisted a blind person before but she knew that without her help her new customer would find it impossible to use the gym.

    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.

    "It's hard enough to live with any kind of disability — to get up, get dressed, go to work — why do we have to make recreation and fitness more difficult?" asked the study's author, James H. Rimmer, the director of the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

    But getting fit might soon become easier for the 49.7 million Americans who a 2000 Census Bureau estimate said are blind, in wheelchairs or otherwise physically or mentally impaired. New equipment is being designed for them. A handful of new gyms are going out of their way to assist them with wheelchair-accessible equipment.

    The 26,830 health clubs in the country may soon be forced to follow suit. 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. This angers some disabled people. "Someone should challenge the law," said Andrew Houghton, 39, an advocate for disability rights.

    At the same time, Mr. Houghton added, if the fitness industry made modest accommodations, it would attract new dues-paying members among the disabled. He has fashioned a recumbent bike that can be used by both disabled and able-bodied gymgoers. It's a solution that wouldn't cause too much financial hardship for health clubs, he said.

    For years, most gyms have assumed that people in wheelchairs or with visual impairments didn't want to work out, so they did not train instructors or provide special equipment, said Helen Durkin, the director of public policy for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, the industry's leading trade group.

    The sports club association wants to make sure that the new regulations don't cost the clubs exorbitant sums, and won't force members to wait in endless lines for fewer machines. "We think the D.O.J. should be looking at the accessibility of the equipment by body part," Ms. Durkin said of the Justice Department. "So, a chest-press machine would be accessible, but not every conceivable apparatus that could be used for a chest press has to be."

    Christopher Grobbel, 46, a former extreme skier who was paralyzed 10 years ago, said the clubs he visited after rehabilitation were not wheelchair friendly and staff members he met had "no sensitivity training." When he rolled into one club in 1997, he said, "they looked at me like I was nuts." So in 2001, he founded a gym of his own, Crosstrainers Fitness Forum in Clinton Township, Mich., "where abled and disabled can train side by side."

    Clubs like Mr. Grobbel's are still rare.

    Only 36 percent of Americans with disabilities engage in any leisure-time physical activity, like gardening or walking, compared with 56 percent of the general population, according to Healthy People 2010, a report by the Federal Department of Health and Human Services.

    The disabled who do work out at gyms often run into obstacles. Four times a week, Brian Muniz, who is paralyzed from the waist down, wheels around the indoor track at his hometown gym in Addison, Ill. But after trying, and failing, to use this gym's strength-training circuit, he abandoned the idea. "The seats are tiny on the machines, so if I had to transfer onto them I'd risk falling," explained Mr. Muniz, who is part of the United States quadriplegic rugby team.

    Twice a week, Mr. Muniz, 33, travels to lift weights at a fitness center affiliated with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where he was a patient in 1999. "They have every machine you could think of for people in wheelchairs," he said. The seats swing out so he can lift from his chair.

    The extent to which disabled exercisers are accommodated varies. Crista Earl, who is blind, exercises at two gyms. With the help of a friend, Ms. Earl, 48, sometimes pastes Braille stickers onto the cardiovascular machines so she can work the control panels. But these days, a helpful trainer at Asphalt Green, a nonprofit club in Manhattan, tapes varying sizes of paper onto a treadmill so she can figure out the buttons.

    She didn't always get so much help. "A lot of places you go in and they're like 'You're going to be a real problem,' " she said.

    No chain of gyms does a lot to accommodate the disabled, said Amy E. Rauworth, an associate director of the Center on Physical Activity and Disability, adding that it is not because of discrimination but because the gyms are unaware of the issues. Still, some gyms are making small efforts. Chains like Crunch, New York Sports Club and 24 Hour Fitness say they welcome guide dogs and allow aides in for free. Many branches of Bally Total Fitness have arm cycles, which let members break a sweat without using their legs, and machines with removable seats.

    Other clubs adjust their machines to suit individual disabled members' needs. For instance, the owners of a Liberty Fitness franchise in Riverside, Calif., equipped a set of weight machines with a blinking green light for a deaf member who couldn't hear the timed beeps that announced when it was time to change machines.

    A few gyms try to attract disabled members. Asphalt Green has a 50-meter pool with wheelchair lifts, and a seven-foot-deep exercise pool with a floor that rises to ground level and then lowers the user into water. Twice a week, Kenny Diaz, 39, who has cerebral palsy, lifts weights on his own and swims with an aide's help in the pool. People think the "disabled can't do anything," he said. "They're wrong."

    Mr. Grobbel's gym is one of the few where sinks and lockers are positioned at wheelchair height. The aisles between equipment are wide and all machines have removable seats. All of the gym's personal trainers are certified in adaptive fitness, a specialized credential for those who work with disabled exercisers, even though only about 75 of the club's 1,500 members have disabilities.

    In May, Cybex International introduced a line of disabled-friendly machines, and the company says it has sold hundreds of models, mostly to universities. The line includes seven pieces of cardiofitness equipment with bright yellow pedals, straps and handgrips that are easier for people with poor sight to see, as well as raised icons on control buttons for the blind. Strength-training machines have swing-away seats and long, low grips reachable from a wheelchair. (Each piece costs about $200 more than standard equipment.)

    Life Fitness, another exercise machine maker, has been working with the Center on Physical Activity and Disability to outfit its equipment with Braille instructions, brightly colored handles and adjustable seats. "It's a significant 2006 agenda for us," said Christine Cunningham, a manager at the education arm of the company, in Franklin Park, Ill. "We see the writing on the wall that the guidelines are going to change."