The sour smell of garbage permeating the freight elevator at the downtown Bally's fitness club is overwhelming. For anyone in a wheelchair, however, this is the only guaranteed route to the club's equipment, which is spread over several levels. Still, it beats access to the Lloyd Athletic Club, which has no way to transport the disabled to the second floor of the club, where all the equipment is located.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, was aimed at eliminating these types of barriers, but a recent survey of five local health clubs shows room for improvement.
Results of our spot check didn't surprise researchers at Oregon State University, who in 2000 and 2001 visited 50 health clubs in western Oregon to see how they responded to ADA guidelines. Their findings? None got a perfect score. "It surprised me that no facility was fully compliant, given that the ADA has been out for 10 years," says Bradley Cardinal, who led the effort.
Because the OSU team guaranteed health clubs anonymity in return for their participation, we decided to do our own mini-survey. Armed with the OSU checklist and aided by a well-informed, wheelchair-bound critic, we visited five Portland clubs, posing as potential members. Then we scored them on a scale of one to 10 using four different criteria: ease of entry, including parking and the approach to the facility; equipment; staff helpfulness; and locker-room access.
Although health clubs may seem an odd place to demand wheelchair access, exercise is crucial to many who are permanently or temporarily disabled. "In the old days, these people would have to stay home and be segregated from society," says Bob Joondeph, head of the Oregon Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that offers legal services to people with disabilities. "The spirit of the ADA is to include everyone in the life we in good health take for granted."
24 Hour Fitness
4121 NE Halsey St., 281-4767, www.24hourfitness.com
LOCKER ROOMS: 7
RATING: 8.25 Our wheelchair critic deemed this Hollywood club "definitely the most accessible." The wide aisles and roomy layout make it easy to navigate the vast space, and the friendly staff seemed eager to solve any problems we encountered. Two notable difficulties were an ill-placed bar in the accessible shower and a too-narrow sauna door. The club is the only one surveyed to offer a fully seated class geared toward seniors (weekdays at 1:30 pm). Matt Dishman Community Center
77 NE Knott St., 823-3186,
LOCKER ROOMS: 10
RATING: 7.75 Parking is a breeze at this Portland Parks facility, and several machines in the weight room are easy to reach from a wheelchair. On the downside, there's much to be desired in terms of clear paths and navigation may require help from the staff. Employees are willing to "do anything that makes Dishman more accessible," says J.J. Lincoln, a staff supervisor. The main drawback here is overcrowding. Mavericks Sports Club
2025 NW Overton St., 228-2626, www.maverickssports.com
LOCKER ROOMS: 9
RATING: 7.5 This hip Northwest Portland gym has a lot to offer, including a friendly staff and a Schwinn Windjammer Upper Body Ergometer, styled perfectly for wheelchair access. While narrow aisles and a poorly placed floor mat could pose problems, GM Jerry Cunningham welcomed suggestions and yoga teacher Todd Williamson was eager accommodate the disabled in his classes. "It's helpful to have people of all different abilities in one class," he explains. "Everyone's body is different. It makes the class more interesting." Bally Total Fitness
110 SW Yamhill St., 223-0088,
LOCKER ROOMS: 9
RATING: 4.75 There is no disabled parking outside the club (an issue to take up with the City of Portland), and the multilevel layout (not typical of most Ballys) creates obstacles. Two elevators in the building are available for use, but neither can readily be used without club staff, thus limiting customer independence. "All of our other clubs are up to specs," says Jon Harris, Bally vice president. "We're still in the process of updating this club." In addition to the physical limitations, staff at this club seemed more enthusiastic about suggesting other workout locations than working with us. Lloyd Athletic Club
815 NE Halsey St., 287-4594,
LOCKER ROOMS: O
RATING: 1.5 The first sign of trouble occurred in the parking lot next to the club: 25-plus parking spaces, and only one designated "disabled." Despite the fancy ramp leading to the front door, the situation inside quickly turned sour when a club representative informed us that all the equipment is located on the second floor and there is neither an elevator nor a lift on the premises. Even the ground-floor bathrooms are inaccessible due to several stairs between them and the main entry. The club was built in 1978, prior to ADA guidelines, but city records show renovations made after the law went into effect in 1992. Club representatives, in a follow-up phone call, promised to explain why they were exempt from the law, but never delivered.