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Fitness Club Responds to ADA Claim from Child with Special Needs with Updated Policies and Procedures

By: Kara M. Maciel and Jordan Schwartz

A recent allegation of disability discrimination from the parents of a three-year old boy with special needs has resulted in a national fitness club chain revising its policies and procedures and implementing staff training.  The alleged discrimination occurred after the child had been playing with toys in the fitness club’s Kids’ Club and had refused to move from his position in front of a slide.  Upon learning from his parents that he had autism, a staff member informed them that, had the staff known that he was autistic, they would not have allowed  him to play in the Kids’ Club.

In response to this incident, the fitness center has taken immediate steps to revise its policies and procedures and institute training to ensure that similar incidences do not occur in the future.  In particular, the fitness center has developed new card check technology which will make certain that staff members are aware of children with special needs and will monitor staffing levels.  Additionally, the national fitness center also sent a memorandum to all of its employees instructing them on how to better attend to children with autism.

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requires places of public accommodation, including fitness and health clubs, to make goods and services available to and usable by individuals with disabilities on an equal basis with the general public. As our blog readers are well aware, to ensure compliance with the ADA, all employers–including fitness health club owners and operators–must regularly evaluate and modify their policies and procedures to ensure sensitivity towards customers with disabilities.  Employers must also provide sufficient training to their managers and front-line staff members regarding their revised policies and procedures, accessible elements within the club and effective communication and interaction with customers with disabilities.  Indeed, despite the best crafted policies, a manager’s ill-advised communication is often the genesis of an ADA discrimination lawsuit.

This recent incident serves as an excellent reminder for all fitness and health clubs that evaluating and revising policies and instituting staff training on such policies should be your two most important “take-aways” to best protect your club from costly legal exposure resulting from violations of the ADA.