Enabling People with Disabilities in Your Club

For Gym Operators

Enabling People with Disabilities in Your Club

People with disabilities, just like anyone else, want to stay physically healthy. Unfortunately, not many fitness clubs accommodate people with different needs. You can improve accessibility in your facility to broaden your member base and provide valuable services to your community.

The following is a summarization of an education session from the 2015 IHRSA Convention, produced with full permission from IHRSA. The full-length video is available for purchase at ihrsastore.com.

About the Speaker

Denise Johnson is the Wellness Director at The Claremont Club. She has 17 years of experience in the health and fitness industry.

Mike Boos is the Facilities Director at The Claremont Club, and has more than 20 years of experience in the health and fitness industry.

Enabling People with Disabilities in Your Club

Meeting the Needs of People with Disabilities

Gyms exist to help people be healthy and improve themselves. While most gyms direct their services to able-bodied people, there is another market that remains almost untouched: people with disabilities. People with disabilities need to be healthy too, yet there are few facilities that provide amenities for them. Your club can stand out by providing services that are accessible to this population.

Special needs programs should minimize barriers within your club. You should take steps to make equipment and movement more accessible. Addressing the needs of people with disabilities will increase revenue while changing the lives of your members for the better.

Be the Best Resource

Educate yourself on the integration of amenities for your current or prospective members with disabilities. Provide instructors with the appropriate training and skills. Investigate partnering with local hospitals or medical communities to provide a more comprehensive package for members with disabilities. Your community is a resource – utilize them. Be open and try new things while prioritizing safety.

Go above and beyond to make your facility welcoming and easy to navigate. Examine your equipment from a different perspective. Do you provide equipment that can be transformed to be wheelchair friendly? Are announcements made in your club both audibly and written on a screen or message board? Does the spacing between equipment and walkways provide ample space for someone in a wheelchair or on crutches? Is your gym floor safe for a person who is blind to navigate? Consider rearranging equipment to make your facility as safe as possible. Also, allow caregivers to be present without incurring an additional charge.

Communication Tips

People worry about saying the wrong thing to a person with disabilities. That mindset can be more insulting than saying nothing. Everyone wants to be recognized and acknowledged. Do not assume a person with a disability needs or wants your help. Instead, let them know, as you would with any member, that you are there for assistance. They will let you know if they need help. Examine your facility from their perspective and look for barriers. Everyone wants to feel comfortable and fit in. Work to make sure your club provides this level of acceptance. Do not pry into the nature of a member's disability; they will initiate the conversation if they wish to talk about it. Be positive and encouraging. Look the person in the eye; be friendly, open, and supportive.

Finding the Right Staff

Your staff represents your key to success. They are the point of contact with members and are the ones who will drive results. Success begins with the interview. When hiring staff, assess how well they would be able to work with people who have special needs. Are they patient and compassionate? Ask how they give back to the community. Share the culture and passion of your club in relation to the causes you support.

New Employee Orientation

Introduce new employees to the special populations you serve and support. Show them inspirational videos of clients with disabilities and the staff who work with them. New hires should always be encouraged to become involved with your cause and special programs. Continual communication is key. Upper management should keep everyone informed about upcoming activities, programs, and events in relation to special populations. Fundraising activities for special programs should be promoted by all staff.


Get the word out! Share your offerings and efforts with prospective members. Post monthly client successes inside and outside the studio.

Dedicate a portion of weekly emails and quarterly newsletters to your special programs and their success. Employing people with disabilities adds diversity and a different perspective to your team.

Support Groups

You can use certain spaces within your club as a meeting place for support groups. Groups can meet once a month, and provide a place for people who have illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, and Parkinson’s to find compassion and support. It can also be a good way to market your club to prospects.


Implementing support for your club members with disabilities can be costly. To offset this cost, you can hold fundraisers such as themed parties, walks, and runs.

ADA Compliance

If you are serious about implementing support for people with disabilities within your facility, make sure your club complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Educate yourself about the specific requirements of the act. Afterwards, you can commission an audit by compliance experts to ensure that your club meets all of the act’s standards. Have the experts create a report on their findings. Review the report documents with them and then prioritize and devise a plan to help your club remain fully compliant.

Start small by assessing your club for accessibility and training your staff. Once your facility is physically and professionally accommodating to people with disabilities, you can develop specialized programs. Follow these guidelines and you'll be on your way to offering people with disabilities a meaningful fitness experience in your club.