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How accessible are Health Clubs in the UK?

Apart from joining local sporting clubs, the 2012 Paralympics also motivated hundreds of disabled people, of all abilities, to head off to their local Health Club and get fit.

How can disabled people join a UK Health Club?

Then came a problem. The barriers went up as soon as people with disabilities arrived at the Health Club to inquire about membership. Across the wide spectrum of disability, gym equipment is often not suitable for someone with a disability. Few, if any, adaptations are in place.


What support for disabled people can be expected in a UK Health Club?

Some gyms will go over and above the legal obligations, and see it also as a moral obligation, not just a legal obligation. Ohers may not know exactly what to do and some Health Club’s feel they are unable to support people with disabilities.


What are the current barriers facing people with disabilities when accessing their local Health Club?

Having surveyed many people with disabilities, the barriers people were or had faced are as follows:


  • No accessible lift to access the Health Club
  • No hoist for ease of access to the swimming pool
  • Guide dog refusal
  • Lack of staff understanding and training of people with disabilities
  • Lack of staff available to assist when and where required
  • People with disabilities being advised the best time to use the gym was when other people with disabilities were using the facilities?
  • People with disabilities being charged an extra fee as they were accompanied by a Support Worker/Friend to support them
  • Changing rooms for people with disabilities not accessible
  • The use of mood lighting prevents safe navigation
  • “In my spin class, mood lighting was used however this impeded my ability to follow the instructor”
  • “I used to have a local gym which could not have been more accommodating. The staff would guide me to the machines and set them up, as they were all touch screens.  I would often book a personal trainer and the trainer would discuss with me what I wanted to do, whether it was weights, using the punch bag or spin class.  Now it has changed to a 24-hour gym and they have told me that the only way I could access their services is either have someone with me or to book a personal trainer each time I want to go”?
  • “I would say, from a personal experience that, as I am blind and try to access the gym this requires a personal trainer, if you have no one to go with you, but a personal trainer costs a lot of money, which is a bit of a problem as I am not able to just walk in and work without one”
  • “I have a large guide dog due to visual impairment and serious physical mobility issues. Whilst the gym has been excellent with my dog, who has to accompany me in to the gym, I was shocked to find that there is no lift in the building and, as a result, I am unable to access the Cardio theatre which is located upstairs! We have to use alternative equipment on the ground floor which I am unable to set up by myself. I would be able to use the Cardio equipment upstairs if only I could access it!! I was not made aware of the issue on joining and there has been no reduction in my subscription”
  • As a person with a visual impairment, it is far easier to have a reserved locker in the changing room as I am then able to locate the locker and store my belongings with ease and without assistance. However, when this was requested the reply that was given was “if we reserve a locker for you, then all our clients will request a reserved locker”?
  • “I get the impression that some staff members feel uncomfortable with me and my disability” “often hesitant addressing me and occasionally feel embarrassed when they think they have said the wrong thing to me”

We have also spoken to several people who have had favourable comments:

  • It is great when staff are on hand to offer assistance
  • When requesting help and assistance it has been given promptly and without fuss
  • They provided a bed and water bowl for my guide dog and made him comfortable in the office, where we are always welcomed
  • They added additional lighting in the gym area and sauna
  • Free Weights are easily identified as the weight is marked with a white marker pen
  • Many people are assisted in the gym, I have been given a radio to alert staff when I am ready to move on to the next piece of gym equipment.
  • My Health Club dedicate a swimming lane solely for my use to enable me to swim independently, which prevents me swimming into other swimmers.
  • I have just started pulmonary rehabilitation run by physiotherapists at a small gym. They have disabled access and have been great so far.  I am able to park my scooter outside, as it is so big, but there are plenty of seats inside and the support is great
  • “I’ve had two positive experiences – the gym I go to at university has supported fitness sessions – essentially personal training for free, for those with disabilities… which is amazing.  It has some accessible machines and you can always ask for help.  Equally when I moved to North Hamptomshire for the summer I went to another really good gym – they didn’t have accessible machines but if I needed help the gym staff were more than happy to help me round the gym, help me get used the layout etc.  I’m so grateful for this because going to the gym is important to me; I’ve only ever had positive experiences from other gym users, offering help etc “
  • “When I attend Yoga class, the Yoga teacher is very good at describing how to move my body, she also gave me a 1 to 1 session’s, so I was aware of how my body needed to be positioned and the names of the moves”.
  • My gym offers concession prices for people with disabilities.
  • “Initially, my swimming pool had no identifiable swimming lanes, this caused me some embarrassment as I was ‘all over the place’. They have now installed ropes, to mark the lanes and my swimming experience is now far more pleasurable”.


Making Health Clubs accessible for all

We are not talking here about providing a mind-boggling array of specially adapted equipment. Keep things simple. In a gym, providing colour contrast, instead of black weights on a black floor, is a good start to help those with a visual impairment. Tactile buttons (i.e. bumpons) to be used on equipment to help identify the main buttons and settings. The lighting could easily be adapted to suit the user.

We all know regular exercise can improve mental and physical wellbeing, yet Sport England announce that just 17.2% of adults with long-term limiting illness or disability participate in weekly sport. This is in comparison to over double that amount for non-disabled people. Why?


Will a Health Club have suitable changing facilities for disabled people?

It is not just about accessing the equipment. Poor changing facilities is another barrier. This can be worse if you need privacy or have a personal assistant of a different gender to yourself. There are reports of disabled people who have had to change in a massage room or walk through a reception area to get to facilities.


Disabled people want to play!

There is also a lack of personal trainers who are trained sufficiently in the arena of disability, and adapting exercises, so they are suitable for people with disabilities could be tricky.

People with disabilities are certainly not lacking in motivation and it is reported that nearly 85% would like to take part in more physical activity. Why can’t they? Largely because the barriers that exist need to be removed first. Creating inclusive Health Clubs would be a welcome move and there are simple adjustments that Health Clubs can make to improve accessibility.

The Inclusive Fitness Initiative (IFI)

In conjunction with the English Federation for Disability Sport (EFDS) the Inclusive Fitness Initiative (IFI) supports leisure centres to become more welcoming and accessible environments for people with disabilities.

And this needs to be extended beyond ramped access and disabled toilets! A small sticker announcing the provision of an induction loop is fine for those with hearing difficulty, but not if it does not work or staff haven’t a clue what to do if someone asks to use a hearing loop. The good news is that facilities across the country can be awarded the IFI Mark accreditation and the initiative helps leisure facilities and gyms to get more people with disabilities physically active.

For Health Clubs to become IFI accredited, the EFDS looks for features including removable seats so that wheelchair users can access equipment and good use of colour contrast and large clear print to aid people with a visual impairment.


People with disabilities want to be fun, fit…and active Health Club users!

For more information on disability awareness training: