The Family Fitness Center in Ripley, Tennessee seems to have forgotten the spirit of its name, as well as its obligations under the law, judging from its treatment of the Cates family. The city-owned gym turned Sherrie and Kevin Cates as well as their two daughters away at the door the first time they tried to use their paid family membership because 13-year-old Mollie has Down syndrome, a chromosomal disorder also known as trisomy 13.
Gym staff said they didn’t have anyone trained to meet Mollie’s needs.
Her parents, and disability advocates, are crying foul. Not only does Mollie participate in school sports with her nondisabled peers, but she deserves full access and integration into society just like everyone else. The gym’s harsh decision was a clear case of disability discrimination, a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and something that could potentially get it into serious trouble if her family chooses to pursue the matter. If they did, disability rights advocates would be prepared to back them, because everyone deserves to enter a gym without commentary or denial of services.
Some people with Down syndrome enjoy working out, and can benefit from activities intended to increase strength and coordination. A chance to play in the pool can also be tremendously beneficial, as can an opportunity to have fun with the whole family in a structured environment, and socialize with a wide range of people. Like other disabled people, Mollie needs contact with people beyond a limited circle of family and friends, and being turned away is a reminder that many people fear and dislike her.
While a gym employee may have refused entrance because of ignorance, that’s no excuse. The gym should have provided ample training to staff members in dealing with disabled customers and how to accommodate people who may have particular needs; for example, Mollie might need to swim only when there’s a lifeguard on duty for liability reasons. The fact that it didn’t is an illustrate of the tremendous knowledge gap in mainstream society, which assumes that disabled people can’t go to gyms or wouldn’t want to, when in fact nothing is further from the case; some actually have prescriptions for exercise!
The city claims that it’s working on a way to accommodate Mollie and her family, and time will tell if they follow through. Representatives are also claiming that parts of their application for membership were falsified, with Mollie’s name left off and no doctor’s statement about her disability included in the family’s application package. The larger issue here remains unaddressed, however. How did Ripley’s gym get by so long with no plans or accommodations for potential disabled members?
Mollie’s mother Sherrie says: “Their brochure says they don’t turn anyone away, anyone can come in. But, we were met at the door and they said their staff isn’t trained to deal with anyone like Mollie.” Their experience is a reminder of the fact that for disabled people along with friends, family, and loved ones, even a seemingly simple activity like joining and going to a gym can become fraught with obstacles put in place by ignorant and discriminatory people.
The gym provided no opportunities for Mollie’s parents and Mollie herself to communicate with staff about the situation, choosing instead simply to exclude them on the basis of the fact that Mollie’s sporting an extra chromosome. Attitudes like this are commonplace despite the fact that the ADA is more than 20 years old, illustrating how widespread disability discrimination is in the United States.
Image credit: Andrew Czap>