Not the usual workout

  • Medill News Service
  • January 30, 2006 @ 9:57 AM
Like any other fitness center in the Chicago area, this 4,000-square-foot health club has treadmills, elliptical machines and medicine balls tucked neatly in the corner.

Yet for 19-year-old Kordan Pettus walking on the treadmill and 56-year-old Ginny Safranek pedaling furiously on the stationary bike, this fitness center is unique. Last April, a bus ran over Pettus' left leg. Ten years ago, a stroke left Safranek paralyzed on her left side. After being discharged from the hospital, Safranek, who ran 2.5 miles three times a week before her stroke, had nowhere to turn.

"Once the insurance tells you you're done, there's nothing to do," she said.

Conventional gyms do not offer the kind of facilities, machines or trained staff that could cater to her different, if not challenging, needs. In 1999 she joined the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the only fitness center in Chicago that serves people with disabilities.

Safranek now works out for three hours three times a week and is, to all appearances, as fit as her pre-stroke self. People like her and Pettus represent the increasing and largely unmet need for specialized fitness facilities.

Public awareness about the disabled and their needs is limited.

However, with recent focus on "Murderball," the critically acclaimed documentary about quadriplegics who play full-contact rugby and eventually make it to the 2004 Athens Paralympics, awareness is increasing, though not nearly fast enough some say.

"In Chicago, we're the only one," said Mitch Carr, fitness director of the institute.

The equipment in their health and fitness club is all modified to suit the needs of their clients, whose disabilities range from multiple sclerosis to amputation. Treadmills start at a speed of 0.1 miles per hour; conventional machines, 0.5 miles per hour. Bench press machines have levers that allow for wheelchair access. Seats on all machines are lower and wider. The adjustments, though tiny, are often crucial in easing access.

While no specific requirements exist for exercise equipment accessibility, the United States Access Board has suggestions. In a document published in 2004, it proposed that exercise equipment have adequate space to allow someone to transfer from a wheelchair. However, nothing was written of the machines themselves.

Equinox, a national chain of fitness centers, has four branches in Chicago, including one in The Loop and one in Highland Park. Luba Senatorova, who directs design and layout at all Equinox facilities, said the centers all comply with guidelines laid down by the Americans with Disabilities Act, including adequate aisle space around machines and on strength training floors. Senatorova said she also had never seen anything in the act that dealt with the machines themselves.

Narrow profit margins and a small target clientele stopped Lloyd Bachrach, former paralympian, from opening his own fitness facility. "We're talking about a small population," he said. Though 1 in every 5 people has a physical or mental disability, Bachrach noted, a smaller percentage of those are mobile enough to use a gym. "The sad thing is that [many] chains don't open their doors and let in people who are differently abled."

Bachrach, who wears prostheses on both legs, said he has no problem using the equipment at these centers, though other disabled people often do. "I would be surprised if they had anybody who was using them," he said.

For the institute's fitness coordinator, Jocee Volk, however, the lack of facilities is unacceptable. "If you didn't know the difference coming in here, it just looks like a standard piece of equipment," she said.

The adjustments, she added, are easy to make. While several hospitals have physical therapy centers, access is limited to in-patient stays. "If someone got discharged for out-patient service, there's no facility they can come back to use on their own," Carr said.

Without insurance to offset the costs of hospital therapy, private therapy is generally beyond the financial reach of many disabled people. Membership to the institute, Volk pointed out, is reasonably priced: after an initiation fee of $10-$25, monthly fees add up to a paltry $1.67.

Safranek now alternates her workouts at Curves, a gym closer to her home in Glenview. After her stroke, though, the institute had been the only choice available. "When I needed extra help to strap my hand on [the machine], it was the only place."