Guest Column - October 2011
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ADA & Aquatics
Unlocking the Fountain of Youth

By Justin Caron

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 ideal for those recovering from injury, those who have chronic ailments such as arthritis and fibromyalgia, the obese, and also those with cognitive disorders like autism.

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

The New England Center for Children is a nonprofit school for autism treatment and education located in Boston. The 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 traditional pools. 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 allow them to relax and enjoy the water," Leonard explained. At the Center for Excellence they use a ratio of two instructors per 15 students and also rely on a system where individual teachers are assigned to specific students who need special attention.

Leonard added that in his opinion aquatics offers a great chance to provide students with structured physical activities and learning opportunities in a more fun environment. "Aquatics is great for special needs as it provides them an opportunity to exercise with more freedom, more comfortably and more easily than land-based exercise due to the buoyancy of water. Our kids gravitate toward it. Even when the time is spent in work-based exercises it feels like fun."

Translating Practice Into Profits

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

One of the biggest complaints that has prevented therapy programs from being more successful in the past is the fact 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 have their needs accommodated. For facilities without enough space to add another pool, installing movable floors is an option—although an expensive one and one that 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, therapy classes are typically a top draw and facilities can charge enough per person to generate revenue off each class. Therapy classes also go a long way toward building community and positive consensus in communities with a politically active demographic group.

Another revenue-generating recent trend in aquatic therapy has been to install 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 or treatment. The units do require a special instructor, and typically you need a physical therapist's referral for their use. While 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 only continue to grow as people live longer and look to aquatic exercise as a way to get back in shape, reduce pain and recreate with their peers. Keep in mind as you pursue these options and this potentially lucrative market segment that while ADA and ADAAG make you design and build your facility a certain way, that you should strive rather to comply with the spirit of ADA and not the letter of the law. In many cases you will be providing our nation's largest minority group with their only outlet for improving their physical well-being.


Justin Caron, a former NCAA Division I 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. For more information, visit