PRB Articles

ADA And Aquatics

The largest minority group in the United States does not discriminate against new members. Any one of us may become a member at any time. Similar to other minority groups, inclusion in this group is not a choice. It is becoming a powerful political force, and for decades it has shaped the way that any public facility can be designed and operated.

And it is growing rapidly.

As human life expectancy increases, the number of disabled people will continue to grow. U.S. Census Bureau projections show that the over-65 and over-85 demographic brackets are predicted to double over the next 30 years.

Further statistics from the bureau indicate:

• 22 percent of the current population are disabled

• 72 percent of people 80 and older are disabled

• 52.1 million people have some level of disability

• 32.5 million people have severe disabilities

• 4 million children have some level of disability

• 2.7 million people age 15 or older use a wheelchair

• 9.1 million people age 15 or older use an ambulatory aid (a cane, crutch or walker).

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed and forever changed the way those with disabilities live. The comprehensive civil-rights act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. It can trace its roots to the largest and hardest fought of all constitutional amendments, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which essentially makes it illegal for any place that receives federal funds to discriminate on the basis of race, religion or national origin.

Other laws and amendments have slowly expanded the 1964 Act to include gender, families and those with disabilities--all of which culminated in the passage of ADA.

ADA’s impact is felt across all public facilities because it requires that newly constructed and altered places of public accommodation and commercial facilities be readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. While every part of the facility does not need to be handicap-accessible, there does need to be a way for a disabled person to gain access to all areas and amenities.

ADA, ADAAG And Regulations

The reason this is important for aquatics is because aquatic-therapy programs are among the fastest growing and most profitable pool programs.

However, before ADA and the more recently updated 2004 ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), it was very difficult for disabled persons to access most public swimming pools, which normally have a couple of ladders and sometimes a set of stairs.

ADAAG requires that all public pools have at least one access point where a handicapped person can enter and exit a swimming pool. Pools that have over 300 linear feet of wall require two means of ingress and egress. ADAAG lists five types of access:

• Sloped entries, such as a ramp with a dual handrail

• An ADA-accessible lift that can be operated without assistance

• A transfer wall in which a person in a wheelchair can move from the chair onto the wall and into the pool

• A transfer system in which a person in a wheelchair can move from the chair onto a platform and “bump” his or her way down into the pool

• Stairs with a dual handrail.

The chart below shows five different types of pools and the five means of access that apply to each.

On July 23, 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder signed into law an update to the 2004 ADAAG that includes many clarifications and minor revisions of the past regulations. One section in particular--Sec.36.311 Mobility Devices--may impact the world of aquatics:

(a) Use of wheelchairs and manually powered mobility aids. A public accommodation shall permit individuals with mobility disabilities to use wheelchairs and manually powered mobility aids, such as walkers, crutches, canes, braces, or other similar devices designed for use by individuals with mobility disabilities in any areas open to pedestrian use.

(b)(1) Use of other power-driven mobility devices. A public accommodation shall make reasonable modifications in its policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of other power-driven mobility devices by individuals with mobility disabilities, unless the public accommodation can demonstrate that the class of other power-driven mobility devices cannot be operated in accordance with legitimate safety requirements that the public accommodation has adopted pursuant to § 36.301(b).

The 2010 revisions can start to be enforced in January 2011 but won’t be required until January 2012, so the extent of their reach and interpretation are yet to be seen. Of particular interest is section (b) and how it might apply to the use of Segways and other vertical mobility devices that can be cumbersome when not in use, and may be dangerous on a wet pool deck. Many other revisions, such as specific instances when service animals may be removed from the premises, may face legal challenges when the revisions begin to be enforced.

Benefits Of Aquatic Exercise

Many facilities are creating programs specifically for different groups of disabled persons, ranging from learning and behavioral disabilities to the full spectrum of physical disabilities.

Due to the comforting, weight-reducing environment of aquatic exercise, water is an ideal activity for those recovering from injury, those who have chronic ailments such as arthritis and fibromyalgia, the obese and those with cognitive disorders, such as autism.

When creating programs for a facility, it is important to consider the needs of members or constituents and the capabilities of instructors. Special training and skills are needed for many user groups, including those with cognitive disorders.

The New England Center for Children is a non-profit school for autism treatment and education, located in Boston, Mass. Its facility features a 3,250-square-foot, six-lane swimming pool with stairs across the entire shallow end and depths that change across the width of the pool as opposed to its length, like that of a traditional pool.

Phil Leonard, the Adapted Physical Education Specialist at the school, feels that it is vital to understand how the pool will be used before it’s built.

“You have to know your population well enough to plan ahead for behaviors and facility design. The way that our pool is designed is perfect for our students, who are more hesitant until they are comfortable enough to feel safe and to relax and enjoy the water,” Leonard explains.

The center uses a ratio of two instructors per 15 students, and also relies on a system where individual teachers are assigned to specific students who need special attention.

Leonard believes aquatics offers a great chance to provide students with structured physical activities and learning opportunities in a fun environment.

“Aquatics is great for special needs, as it provides opportunities to exercise more comfortably, more easily and with more freedom than land-based exercise. Our kids gravitate toward it. Even when the time is spent in work-based exercises, it feels like fun.”

Translating Good Practice Into Profits

The rising awareness of the benefits of aquatic therapy has created a rare situation where doing the right thing not only helps those who need it, but also helps a facility to be profitable. The disabled typically utilize pools during non-peak hours--late morning to early afternoon--when many pools sit empty or are barely used.

One of the biggest complaints that have prevented therapy programs from being more successful in the past is that therapy users and lap swimmers want different things in a swimming pool. Lap swimmers prefer colder and deeper water, whereas therapy users prefer warmer water and shallower depths.

Many modern facilities are moving toward multiple pool facilities where each user group can be accommodated. For facilities without enough space to add another pool, installing movable floors is an option--although an expensive one--but it doesn’t address the temperature dilemma.

The reason that facilities are looking toward incorporating more therapy-friendly programs is that, along with learn-to-swim classes, they are typically a top draw, and facilities can charge enough per person to generate revenue from each class.

Another recent revenue-generating trend in aquatic therapy is installing pre-manufactured therapy pool units, such as those by Hydroworx and AFW, as a separate body of water in a facility. These units typically have floors that raise and drop according to operator preference or user need, and additional features, such as in-floor treadmills, underwater video cameras, the ability to generate currents to walk or swim against and specialty therapy hoses for massage/treatment.

The units do require a special instructor, and typically require a physical therapist’s referral for use. Although expensive, they can provide a significant return on investment if the facility reaches out to local hospitals, rehabilitation clinics and senior-citizen groups, and can keep the pool booked.

Additionally, Medicare and many insurance companies will pay for a certain number of sessions in these pools each year.

The need for therapeutic water space will continue to grow as people live longer and look to aquatic exercise as a way to get back in shape, reduce pain, rehabilitate, and recreate with their peers.

Keep in mind as you pursue these options and this potentially lucrative market segment that while ADA and ADAAG require a facility to be designed and built a certain way, you should strive to comply with the spirit of ADA rather than the absolute letter of the law. In many cases you will be providing the nation’s largest minority group with its only outlet for improving physical well-being.

Justin Caron, a former NCAA Division 1 competitive swimmer, is an Associate with Aquatic Design Group, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based architecture and engineering firm, specializing in the design of competitive, recreational and leisure-based aquatic facilities. He can be reached via e-mail at

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