Women With Down Syndrome Say Treatment At Fitness Club Was
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
July 29, 2004
PORT WASHINGTON, WISCONSIN--Four women with Down syndrome have decided to pull their memberships in a local fitness center claiming that they were treated unfairly by owners and trainers because of their disabilities.
The four women, who are roommates at a Port Washington group home, decided in March to join the Slender Lady fitness center in nearby Grafton rather than go to a specialized recreation program. Each signed up for a $70 one-year membership, with the expectation to pay monthly dues. They were told they could get a discount if they helped sign up other people.
During the next three months, the they showed up early every morning, Monday through Saturday, to use the fitness center's workout room.
In the middle of June, one of the trainers informed the group home's manager, Charity Schwalbe-Gahan, that Slender Lady would be participating in the upcoming 4th of July parade, and was looking for volunteers. When Schwalbe-Gahan said she would talk to the ladies about it, the trainer said she would check to see if that would be okay.
In a phone interview last week, Schwalbe-Gahan told Inclusion Daily Express that a couple of days later, the trainer clarified that she could volunteer, but that it had been decided that the other women were not invited "because of who they are."
Appalled, Schwalbe-Gahan asked what that meant.
"The trainer said they didn't want to attract 'those kinds of clients', meaning, 'people who are not normal'."
When Schwalbe-Gahan met with the women and explained what had happened, they were disappointed and angry. They had been proud of how much weight they had lost, and had looked forward to showing off for friends and parade goers.
"It's just ridiculous," said one of the women.
"That wasn't' very nice," said another.
"That just isn't fair," echoed a third.
They then decided to pull their memberships and not go back to the fitness center.
About few days later, a letter arrived from Slender Lady's owners, Zoran and Nicole Micic.
"Please accept our apology for any miscommunication or lack of reasoning," it read. "Our concerns of them being in the parade had nothing to do with people seeing them. We were not sure of how they would handle the crowds and the loud music. We think it is a legitimate concern."
"That made no sense," Schwalbe-Gahan said about the letter. "Anyone who had been with us when we exercised knew we worked out to music cranked up really loud."
Schwalbe-Gahan later learned that Slender Lady decided to withdraw from the parade. The reason given: Not enough volunteers.
Schwalbe-Gahan sent a letter of complaint to the national office in Austin, Texas. After a week went by with no response, she turned to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
A reporter contacted Lou Manganiello, the spokesman at Slender Lady's head office.
"I'm not sure there is a basis for a complaint," said Manganiello, who explained that the company had not decided whether to respond to Schwalbe-Gahan because the Grafton Fitness Lady had chosen not to participate in the parade.
A few days ago, Schwalbe-Gahan received an anonymous letter from a person claiming to be a former client of Slender Lady. The writer said she quit going there after she felt staff humiliated her because she was not "their perfect example of who they want working out there."
The writer explained that she overheard one of the trainers referring to the four Port Washington women on several occasions as "The Retards".
"This also made me feel very angry and uncomfortable," the letter read. "It was totally uncalled for."
Schwalbe-Gahan has forwarded the letter to customer relations/human resources at the national office.
She said the women in the group were proud of the weight they had lost and were finding other ways to continue their fitness programs.
Schwalbe-Gahan said the decision to discriminate against the women was unfortunate for them and for the company.
"They lost a lot of business," she said. "We had many other people who would have been interested in going there if Slender Lady was more welcoming."
"Women left out of parade Was it because of their disabilities?" (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)