Man with a prosthetic leg doing pushups in the gym.

Capture the Disability Market Without Spending a Dime: 12 Free & Easy Ways to Make Your Gym More Inclusive

The New Year is coming up and that means it is time for big business in the fitness industry.  People making their resolutions will be lining up and hopefully signing up for new gym memberships.  This is the perfect time for gym and studio owners to take advantage of one of the biggest, largely untapped markets in the fitness industry – individuals with disabilities.

Disability Statistics

The disability market is large and growing.  If you are wondering how big of a potential opportunity the disability market represents, just take a look at these recent statistics.

Facility owners often balk at the thought of making their facilities more accessible and inclusive.  They often think they must spend thousands of dollars and enormous amounts of time to make changes that will have significant impact.  Frequent thoughts are that you need to buy new, expensive equipment or make substantial changes to the building structure. They are wrong.  You can grow your member base by improving accessibility without making a big investment in time or money.  Here are 12 easy ways to make your gym more accessible without spending a dime.

#1  Turn on Closed Captioning

Many facilities have televisions to provide entertainment in the cardio section.  Monitors and screens also are used in some group fitness settings and throughout the facility to display promotional and marketing content.  If you have televisions or monitors in your facility, one of the easiest ways to make the environment more inclusive is by turning on the closed captioning.  Closed captioning allows members with hearing impairments to understand and enjoy the content on the screens along with other members.

#2  Pick Up Equipment Off of the Floor

Keeping the floors of the fitness areas free from unracked weights and other miscellaneous equipment can feel like a never-ending task.  However, having equipment strewn on the floor not only poses a safety risk for all members, but can be a significant barrier to accessibility for individuals with disabilities.  Individuals with mobility disabilities and vision impairments are at increased risk of injury from tripping on or bumping into equipment that is not properly stored.  Additionally, those using assistive devices such as canes, walkers, and wheelchairs may not be able to access certain areas or pieces of equipment if their path is blocked by scattered and misplaced equipment.

One way to reduce the clutter on the fitness floor is to encourage members to return equipment to its proper place after use. This can be done in a number of ways. The easiest, and most common way, is to post signs throughout the facility.  If you have an internal club channel, you may also want to air periodic reminders on the screens in the facility.

It is also important that staff are trained to communicate to members the importance of returning equipment to its proper place after use.  Staff should also be aware of improperly stored equipment when they are on the fitness floor and pick up equipment that is not in its proper place.

#3  Reorganize Equipment for Easier Access

Making a few changes in the way that equipment is stored can make a huge difference in accessibility.  Today’s fitness facilities typically offer an enormous array of accessories and equipment for every type of workout.  Having options such as free weights, medicine balls, stability balls, and kettlebells helps members increase the effectiveness of their workouts while adding variety.  This leads to happy members!  It’s great to have all of this equipment, but it is only valuable if people can actually use it.  Take a look at how you store your equipment and ask yourself the following questions.

1. Is your equipment stored in a narrow space (e.g. a closet or equipment room) or behind other objects (e.g. other equipment, machines)?  Would an individual using a mobility device, such as a wheelchair or scooter, have a clear path that is wide enough to access the equipment? 

When equipment is stored in narrow and small spaces it becomes exceedingly difficult for individuals that use a wheelchair or assistive device because they don’t have enough room to maneuver.

2. Is your equipment stored on high shelves?  Could a person using a wheelchair or an individual of short stature safely reach the equipment? 

Reaching overhead can be difficult for individuals with certain orthopedic and neuromuscular disorders, as well as those with balance issues. High shelves also pose a problem for those that use a wheelchair or are of short stature as they can’t reach the equipment.

3. Is your equipment stacked on top of each other?  Would an individual with mobility or balance issues be able to safely remove and replace the equipment?

Equipment that’s in disarray is a tripping hazard for those that are balance-challenged or visually impaired, as well as a stability issue for wheelchair users.

Once you assess your space, you can move things around to make them more accessible.

#4  Keep a Clipboard at the Front Desk

The first thing most people see when they come through the front doors is the reception counter or front desk.  Ideally, the reception counter is low enough or, at a minimum, has a section low enough to allow for an individual using a wheelchair to roll up and use the desk surface to fill out paperwork, etc.  According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an accessible counter is at least 36″ long and no more than 36″ above the floor with a 30″ by 48″ space in front of the counter to accommodate a wheelchair or electric scooter.  Unfortunately, many reception counters are rather tall, with the counter surface at around the chest-level of person standing.  If your front desk does not have an area low enough for a person in a seated position to use, an easy fix is to have a clipboard (or a computer tablet if your facility is fully-digital) handy.  The front desk staff member can come around the front of the desk to speak with the member and the member can use the clipboard in his or her lap as a writing surface.

#5 Make a List of Accessible/Universally Designed Equipment and Accessories

Staff should be aware of the facility’s accessible and universally designed equipment and accessories.  Here are some examples:

  • Accessible equipment:  arm-crank ergometer or handcycle
  • Universally designed equipment:  Lat pulldown machine with removable or swing-away seat
  • Adaptive accessories: Gripping gloves and foot plates or pedal straps for bicycles

#6  Move Magazines and Promotional Materials Closer to the Floor

Move items like magazines and promotional materials within reach of seated members and individuals of short stature.  Often times, magazines and promotional materials such as brochures, flyers, and class schedules are stored on high countertops or in tall display racks.  Simply moving these materials to a lower rack or table can make them accessible to all members.

#7  Secure Entryway Mats and Rugs

Make sure entryway mats, rugs, and other floor coverings lie flat and are securely fastened to the floor. Doormats, rugs, and other floor coverings that are frayed, have curling edges, or are not firmly attached to the floor pose a safety risk for all members.  However, unsecured floor coverings are particularly treacherous for individuals with disabilities.  Individuals with visual or mobility disabilities can easily trip or slide on loose floor coverings.  Unsecured mats and rugs pose both a safety hazard and an accessibility challenge for people that use a mobility device.  They can easily get caught up in the wheels of a wheelchair or scooter or snagged under the legs of a walker or a cane.

#8  Make Sure Parking Areas and Walkways are Clear of Obstacles

Your sidewalks, parking lots, and entrance areas may meet the ADA requirements, but be aware of temporary barriers that can create obstacles and limit access to your facility.

Some examples of temporary barriers that may limit access to your facility include:

  • items like bike racks, planters, sidewalk signs, and trash cans that block part of the sidewalk or the pathway to the accessible entrance. Remember that an individual using a wheelchair or other mobility device requires a wider clear path to maneuver than does an individual on foot. The ADA requires the clear width of walking surfaces to be a minimum of 36 inches (915 mm) wide. Obstacles that can be easily avoided or stepped around by an individual on foot can be an insurmountable barrier for a customer using a mobility device.
  • uncleared snow and untreated ice on sidewalks and in the parking area. Snow and ice in and around accessible parking spaces and on accessible pathways can make access difficult or impossible for a customer with a disability.
  • parked delivery trucks or construction vehicles. These vehicles may block accessible parking spots, access to sidewalk curb-cuts, and accessible entryways.

Regularly checking the parking areas and walkways and removing any temporary barriers can go a long way to improving the accessibility of your facility.

#9  Make a List of Accessible Transportation Options

Getting to and from the facility can be a significant barrier to individuals with disabilities.  One way you can make it easier for individuals with disabilities to use your facility is by providing members (and potential members!) with a list of accessible transportation options.  Compiling the list may take a little research, but it can go a long way in making your facility more accessible.  You may have the best equipment, instructors, and programs – but none of that matters if your members can’t get to you!

When creating a list of accessible transportation options, here are a few things to consider:

  • Public Transportation
    • Is the facility on a bus or train route?
    • Are there local paratransit services available?
    • How far is the facility from the nearest bus/train stop?
    • Is the route from the bus/train stop to the facility entrance accessible?
  • Walkability/Accessible Sidewalks/Paths – Are there accessible sidewalks or recreation paths that allow for easy access on foot, by bicycle, or using a wheelchair or scooter?
  • Parking – Are there adequate accessible parking spaces available?  Even during peak times?

Have it available in printed form, large print or Braille, and online.  Keep one at the front desk to hand out to people coming into the facility or for reference when prospective members call to ask questions about the facility.  Make sure the front desk staff are familiar with the transportation options to more easily assist customers.

#10  Include Images of Individuals with Disabilities in Promotional Materials

Joining a gym or fitness studio is as much about community as it is about getting fit.  All members want to feel like they belong and are part of the facility’s culture and community. Next time you are putting together a new marketing campaign, consider including pictures of individuals with disabilities in marketing and promotional materials.  Seeing individuals with disabilities in your mainstream marketing lets prospective members with disabilities know that your facility is inclusive.  It assures them that they will feel welcomed by the gym community and comfortable in the environment.  It also demonstrates that inclusion is a priority for your organization.

#11  Create an Organizational Inclusion Policy

There is no better way to let prospective members know that you are committed to inclusion than to put it in writing.  Create an “inclusion policy” that reflects your organization’s Include the policy in the employee manual, on the company website, and in appropriate company reports and documents. Add an inclusion statement to your membership documents.  Let members know that your organization supports an inclusive environment and people of all abilities are welcome.

Make sure that the policy is communicated to all levels of the organization – from support staff to upper management.  Most importantly, remember that words are worthless unless the principles behind the words are put into action. Let employees know that they are expected to demonstrate the values inclusion on the everyday on the job.

#12  Provide Exceptional Customer Service

The best thing you can do to make your facility more inclusive is provide exceptional customer service.  Treat everyone that comes through your doors with courtesy and respect. Smile, be welcoming, listen, and be willing to adapt.

In Conclusion

Make the commitment to improve the accessibility and inclusiveness of your facility in the new year.  With a minimal investment of time and money, you can increase sales while making a difference for your members.

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