For people with disabilities, Ability360’s fitness center is not just a gym. It’s a gift, a lifeline, a privilege, a necessity.
The 45,000-square-foot fitness center, part of a 62,000-square-foot campus tucked in a business area east of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and along the light rail route, is the first of its kind in the western United States and one of only a few in the nation.
Its equipment is designed with accessibility in mind. For example, the lap pool has a lowered bench for transferring directly from a wheelchair to the water. The fitness room features strength, cardio and free weight equipment like any gym, but they’re designed to accommodate people with disabilities.
The campus is also home to a slew of nonprofits that help people with various disabilities and is typically bustling with activity. Ability360’s fitness center started the year with 2,800 members.
For those with recent injuries, the gym is a place to see and meet others who have coped with and grown stronger from their injuries, a place for encouragement.
For others, it’s the only place they ever get to use accessible equipment. It might be the only reason they leave the house.
For a select few, like those who had been training to play in the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo, it’s one of the best and most adaptive training facilities in the state.
“This is a place like nowhere else,” said Ability360 vice president and general manager Gus LaZear. “It’s warm, it’s welcoming, people are friendly but also keep you accountable for working out.”
Like many gyms, Ability360 shut down March 17. But when other gyms raced to reopen, Ability360 leaders were more cautious. They serve a more vulnerable population.
The Arizona Republic followed three Ability360 members over several months, documenting as they coped with the rollercoaster of closures and re-openings at the facility they described as being like a second home, a place where their disability didn’t define them.
When Ability360, a Phoenix gym for people with disabilities closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they adapted.
For a Paralympic athlete, Ability360 is essential
Joe Jackson, 30, has been paralyzed from the waist down since being injured during a Hamilton High School football game in 2005.
Breaking his C6 vertebrae in his lower neck left him without the ability to sweat, meaning he can quickly overheat — a common result of spinal cord injuries.
He didn’t used to have to think about it because of the air conditioned rooms at Ability360. He’d been going there three to five days a week for sessions spanning several hours since the gym’s opening in 2011.
Ability360’s focus on accessibility has been a “game-changer” for Jackson, he said.
Jackson in 2007 started playing quad rugby and joined Ability360’s team, which practiced three times per week for three hours at a time at the facility on top of regular games and tournaments.
In 2017, Jackson became a member of the U.S. Paralympic wheelchair rugby team,