Invisible Disabilities: Is Your Fitness Business Discriminating?

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Is your fitness or wellness business accidentally discriminating against the very folks you’re trying to help? Many customers have invisible diseases or disabilities. They need flexibility from your business so that they can experience everything you offer. It’s the law, and even more important — it’s good business sense.

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Consider these real-life examples:

  • A customer with diabetes brought orange juice into yoga class to treat a low blood sugar, only to be told “no food allowed in class.” They have a locked-door policy once class starts — so once she left the room to drink her juice, they wouldn’t let her return to class.
  • A tri shop’s weekly training ride dropped a cyclist with fibromyalgia when she fell off the pace. The group left her to find her own way back to the starting point, 35 miles away, using her phone’s GPS.
  • A doctor’s office refused to allow a patient who had difficulty writing to tape the conversation or invite a friend along to help take notes.
  • A wellness center told a customer with a service dog that “no animals are allowed in the café.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations — which means your health and wellness business is legally required to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices and procedures to accommodate people with disabilities.

Most of you want as many paying customers as you can get, so it’s smart to pay attention to this topic. Plus, if you don’t comply, they can sue you — and far, far worse, they will absolutely complain to their social media community, post negative online reviews, and make sure that everyone knows just how lame your business is.

These three guidelines help ensure that your business is doing not only what it must, but everything it can:

1. Check your assumptions at the door

No one would dream of telling an obviously visually-impaired person to leave his guide dog at the door.

But we have personally seen a club employee tell a guest with a service dog that “he didn’t look disabled” and must “leave the dog outside.” Then, as if they hadn’t already violated the law, the club’s employee demanded to “see the dog’s papers.” Every bit of this interaction was illegal, and either embarrassing or infuriating to the customer.

You cannot tell by looking whether someone has a disability or not.

Not all people with Type 2 diabetes are fat. Not all fat people have Type 2 diabetes. Some people with Type 2 are very active. Some are sedentary. People who have Type 2 may or may not be taking insulin or oral meds. Some but not all Type 2 medications can result in low blood sugar emergencies.

Many disabilities are invisible. There are no outward indications, like wheelchairs or white canes or hearing aids, to alert us.

Moreover, it is not your responsibility to decide if they are disabled or not. It is up to the customer to tell you that they have a disability and need some flexibility from your business.

Once a customer tells you that they have a disability, your responsibility is take their word for it, and ask them how your business can work with them so that they can fully benefit from your programs and services.

(Rarely, someone demands “unreasonable” accommodation. But this is so unusual that we’re not going to address it here, other than to say that you’ll want ADA-experienced legal counsel if the situation escalates and can’t be peacefully resolved.)

The truth is, only your customer is an expert in the special needs they have due to their chronic back pain or asthma or fibromyalgia or multiple sclerosis or diabetes or dozens of other disabilities.

Even if you yourself have the same condition, or you know someone who has that condition, you only know what that experience has been. You may not consider yourself disabled, but that doesn’t mean that someone else isn’t. Another person with the same disability may have very different issues.

The only thing you actually know about your customer’s disability — is what they tell you.

2. Work with your customer to define “reasonable accommodation”

Let’s use the example of the yoga student with diabetes who needs to drink juice to treat a low blood sugar.

You don’t want food and beverages in the studio because it attracts ants and liquid spills could damage hardwood floors. Those are valid concerns.

What’s not valid is expecting your customer to bear all of the burdens created by those goals. Your business has to be part of the solution too.

The key is to find an answer that addresses your concerns, without discriminating against your customer because of her diabetes.

First, ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish with your no-food policy:

  • How realistic are your business concerns? If you’re on the sixth floor in downtown Toronto, your fears of an ant invasion are probably vastly overblown.
  • Do you really need a no-food policy? Often, a blanket policy exists only because of one or two problem people five years ago that you were too chicken to speak to privately.
  • Is there a modified version of the policy that doesn’t discriminate? For example, “Take food wrappers with you after class”

Next, explain your concerns and ask your customer how you can change the policy so that it works better for her.

She might say “I understand why you don’t want open wrappers or liquids. I’ll drink my juice in the hall, but the locked-door policy doesn’t work for me. I need to be able to come back in the studio and continue class after I drink it.”

Or perhaps she’d rather treat her medical issue privately. You both might agree to let her leave a bottle of OJ in the employee fridge and drink it in the employee break room when necessary.

Or you might both feel that it would be less disruptive to simply have her drink the juice at her mat. You both agree that she’ll make sure she throws it out after class, you put a trash can in the hall, and you agree to station a roll of paper towels in the back of the room in the event of a spill. Problem solved.

3. Invite dialogue

The Americans with Disabilities Act leaves most companies plenty of room to accommodate special needs without great expense. It’s up to you to figure out the best answer for your customer and your business.

Many situations can be easily handled simply by inviting customers to make you aware of concerns upfront. It’s more than just putting a sign up that says “Please inform us if you have a disability…”  Real inclusion will be evident in everything your business does.

Remember our cyclist with fibromyalgia? If your cycling studio is leading an outdoor training ride, it doesn’t take much to announce at the start, “If anyone here has a medical condition, please see me now so we can work together to make sure you have a good experience.”

Then, make plans that address the issues that arise. For that rider with fibro — who may unexpectedly run out of energy on an unusually challenging or hot day — it may be as simple as empowering the ride leader to call a fellow employee for a rider pickup when needed. It might mean that your “drop” ride policy turns into a no-drop policy once the ride crosses the city limits, so that your rider with MS can still participate in long rides. Perhaps your ride needs a scheduled 3-minute break every 30 miles so that the rider with Type 1 diabetes can check her blood sugar.

A fitness club we worked with had a very short member who could not reach water fountains, shower heads, weight racks, and more. They were very worried about potential renovation costs — demo’ing walls to lower shower heads, for example.

We suggested that they start by consulting with the member. Turned out, all he wanted was a step stool next to the water fountain and a handheld shower that he could reach. Not expensive at all!

A month later, they had made those changes, their member had made some creative adaptations of his own, and was quite happy to have a place to work out that felt like it was “right for me.”  Everyone was happy as a clam.

The lesson: inclusion is the right answer — ethically, financially and legally. Approach reasonable accommodation in a spirit of inquiry, with a sincere commitment to find the right answer for each customer with a disability, and you’ll both reap long-lasting rewards.