Assessing Accessibility of Fitness Facilities for People Using Wheelchairs


Physical activity of people with mobility impairments is increasingly viewed as a health concern for this population, especially because of their high prevalence of secondary conditions. Loss of functional ability may not be inevitable; it may even be reversible.

Purpose and Anticipated Benefits

The study goal was to evaluate the degree of Title III Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance of fitness facilities in a medium-sized city using the ADA Accessibility Guidelines. Because people with disabilities need opportunities to engage in physical activities, barriers to fitness must be identified and addressed.


Katherine Froehlich Grobe and Dot Nary of the Research and Training Center on Independent Living at the University of Kansas contacted each facility by phone to explain the study, obtain agreement to participate, and find the designated contact person at each facility.




A list of eligible fitness centers was chosen from the 1997 Topeka, Kansas, telephone book under the categories of “fitness centers” and “health clubs.” Martial arts, rehabilitation, weight loss, or athletic training organizations were excluded as were school district and municipal recreation facilities. The eight fitness centers contacted agreed to participate in the study and be evaluated with the 83-item wheelchair accessibility checklist that covered parking, ramps, exterior entrances, interior paths of travel, elevators, restrooms, locker rooms, telephones, drinking fountains, customer service desks, and access to and around exercise equipment. Besides using a steel tape measure, the researchers used an ADA Accessibility Stick to measure threshold heights, ramp slopes and widths, doorway widths, path widths, toilet heights, drinking fountain heights, and knee clearances. An adapted digital scale was used to measure force required to open doors. Six additional questions were asked to cover items not addressed by the survey. An accessibility mean score was derived from the number of accessible items in each area divided by the total items for each area and averaged.


As seen on the graph:

  • Only two facilities had parking in compliance; a third lacked any designated handicapped parking. Five had narrow access aisles and didn’t have enough designated handicapped parking spaces based on the size of the lot.
  • Three facilities were accessible without ramps; accessibility for the remaining facilities ranged from 25% to 75%. The most common problem was lack of handrails on ramps longer than 72 inches.
  • Only one facility had a completely accessible path through the interior. Two had accessible paths between and around the fitness equipment, and two had the required 36-inch paths to move between equipment.
  • No facility had completely accessible restrooms or locker rooms but one came close — it lacked only insulation around the sink drainpipes to prevent burns. Other noted problems were toilet stall access (63%), stalls (50%), seating (63%), inaccessible controls (63%), and barrier curbs to showers (63%).
  • Three had accessible public telephones; three had phones too high, and two had phone cords that were too short to use by a seated person. Only two had accessible drinking fountains; five lacked fountain knee clearance; and five had the spout too high for a seated person to use.
  • Of the three facilities with a pool, only one had an accessible pool.
  • Six were willing to pro-rate member fees based on the degree to which the facility was accessible.


The study found that none of the facilities were 100% wheelchair accessible based on the ADA Accessibility Guidelines and none had adaptive fitness equipment available. The results were similar to a study of fitness facility access conducted in Kansas City in 1996. In both studies, entrances were the most accessible feature and restrooms and locker rooms the most inaccessible. The level of compliance is also similar to results of other accessible studies of public accommodations (for example, restaurants and shopping malls).


Ongoing efforts by professionals and persons with disabilities are needed to advocate for increased accessibility, to educate regarding accessibility codes, and to enforce compliance with laws mandating accessibility. Only when wheelchair users have equal access to such health-preserving settings as fitness facilities will they have an equal opportunity to enhance and maintain their health and to take full advantage of increased opportunities in American society for persons with disabilities.” (Nary, D.E., Froehlich, K., & White, G. (2000). Accessibility of fitness facilities for persons with physical disabilities using wheelchairs. Topics in Spinal Cord Injury 6(1), 97.)


Nary, D.E., Froehlich, K., & White, G. (2000). Accessibility of fitness facilities for persons with physical disabilities using wheelchairs. Topics in Spinal Cord Injury 6(1), 87-98.

Nary, D. E.,Froehlich, K., & White, G. W. (1999). Wheelchair Accessibility of Fitness Facilities in Topeka, KS. Presentation at the Disability Forum, American Public Health Association Annual Conference, Chicago, IL.

Nary, D. E.,White, G. W., Wyatt, D., & Scott, N. (1999). Barriers to Health Activities for Persons with Disabilities. Presentation at the Kansas Public Health Association Annual Conference, Topeka, KS.