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Headshot of Gary Norman on black background.  He is in dark gray suit and tie.
Guest Blogger:  Gary Norman


Our guest blogger today is Gary Norman, Chair of the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights.  
A law school professor once counseled me to work the body as much as the mind (a concept from antiquity). While the legal field increasingly recognizes the importance of health and wellness, lawyers with disabilities may encounter challenges in maintaining an active lifestyle.

Because disabilities often pose disability-specific medical challenges, as well as stressors unique to the disabled – and since we know that people with disabilities suffer some of the worst states of unwellness — it may be especially important for a lawyer with a disability to commit to improving the body.

Accessible pursuits may be divided among those specialized forms tailored to those with disabilities, such as GoalBall in the blindness community, and pursuits that some might think off-limits, such as softball. Among the sports and recreation that I have taken part in are  swimming, Tae Kwon Do (I earned my black belt as a kid despite significant vision loss) and rowing, which I pursued as a young attorney. I favor pursuits that allow those with and without disabilities to participate, such as golf. (My problem with golfing is I’m more like Happy Gilmore than Arnold Palmer.) An organization named Silent Rhythms, which ensures expanding access to the benefits of dance, shows that exercise, sports and recreation can be accessed by people with disabilities and even taught by people with disabilities.

In my health and wellness journey, I have learned that legal and non-legal measures play mutual roles in advancing the accessibility of exercise, sports and recreation.

I typically prefer practical, non-legal approaches. Whether the matter concerns modifying a fitness facility or expanding access to a program, a few considerations are key. Any effort to address the needs of people with disabilities is an opportunity to market and expand membership to a growing population. As the baby boomer population ages or falls within the expanded legal definitions for disabilities, the number of people in the United States with disabilities will rapidly increase. I hope to collaborate, as chair of the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, with stakeholders in the sports and recreation space. In the event that non-legal methods don’t succeed, legal measures come into play:

• Titles I, II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) cover various issues related to accessibility depending on the individual context. The majority of fitness facilities fall under Title III — Public Accommodations and Commercial Facilities. Requirements in the 2010 ADA Standards include minimum heights for countertops and light switches, signage, bathroom fixture selection, walkway widths, railings and flooring choices.

• The international Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities has articles covering access to sports and recreation. While lawyers from the United States played a significant role in writing this important instrument, the U.S. Senate has lagged in actually ratifying it.

An imperfect solution includes enacting more laws to ensure access. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a disabled veteran, introduced the Exercise and Fitness for All Act in April 2019. Under the ADA, fitness facilities are required to meet accessible design standards, such as providing sufficient space next to exercise equipment. However, exercise, sports and recreation providers do not always ensure access for the disabled. The proposed act would require the U.S. Access Board, a federal agency that promotes accessibility, to issue guidelines specifying the number and types of accessible equipment at fitness facilities.

Finally, there is a technology component in ensuring access to exercise, sports and recreation that may be forgotten. During a recent personal training session, I discussed accessibility with my pro disability trainer. She reminded me of the difficulties in most commercial gyms, where equipment now often employs touch screens. These are generally not accessible to the blind. We must be careful not to exclude the disabled when rolling out technologies to track health improvements.

Exercise, sports and recreation are not off-limits to people with disabilities when a confluence of positive attitude, the law and technology train together.

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