Feature Article - October 2008
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All-Access Recreation

Going Beyond ADA to Meet All Needs

By Stacy St Clair

Swim to Access

When it comes to changing the rules of accessibility, it's a long and complicated process, and just because the Access Board makes recommendations, that doesn't mean those recommendations will be enacted.

"It's still a state of flux," said John Caden, president of a company that manufactures pool lifts. The Access Board sets guidelines, which are then turned over to the Department of Justice.

The latest version of guidelines, ADAAG 2004, was turned over to the Justice Department in December of last year. In mid-June, the department came out with its own recommendations based on the guidelines, which was followed by a comment period, which ended in mid-August.

"What they do is take the ADAAG rules and go out and tweak them a bit based on the feedback they get," Caden said. The result is some changes to the ADA rules, and when it comes to existing pools, the department erred on the side of not requiring as many modifications.

Under Title II, Caden said, which pertains to government entities like cities, counties and states, "the big change with respect to existing pools is under the program accessibility requirement," he said.

The ADAAG requires every pool to be accessible, but the Department of Justice changed that requirement to make "a reasonable number but at least one" pool accessible. What's a reasonable number? That's not defined.

That means that for a small town with a single existing pool, a lift or other accessible means of entry and exist must be added. For a city with 100 pools? A single pool must be made accessible.

Most people would argue that 100 percent of pools should be made accessible, Caden said. If the rules as outlined now by the department go through, he added, it would mean, "…someone who lives, for example, on the south side of Chicago across the street from a swimming pool might have to go to the north side to use an accessible pool."

Some might argue that as long as something is being done to address disabled patrons' needs, that's enough, but Caden points out that we're talking about 20 percent of the population here.

"When you're talking about ADA and dealing with disabled people, you have to put it in the context of Civil Rights," he added. "Saying only one out of 100 pools needs to be accessible to the disabled is the same as saying women can only use one pool out of 100."

The problem goes beyond publicly owned facilities, too. For both Title II and Title III, which covers privately owned public pools, like those at hotels, private schools, health clubs and so forth, the Justice Department also changed the recommendations from the ADAAG. Now, while existing pools over 300 linear feet must have one accessible means of entry (downgraded from the ADAAG's recommendation of two entries), pools of less than 300 linear feet are not required to feature an accessible entry at all.

"That's a big problem, especially when you look at Title III," Caden said. "For example, 80 percent of hotels with pools have pools that are 300 linear feet and under, and those don't have to be accessible. So a person with disabilities who wants to swim when they're at a hotel—often the only exercise they're able to take part in and enjoy—is limited to just 20 percent of the hotels out there."

So where do things stand now? The Justice Department is still sifting through the feedback it's received, and a decision is expected before the current administration leaves office in January 2009. In the meantime, what should you do to prepare?

Regardless of the new rules that are eventually handed down and enforced, it pays to consider reaching a larger audience by improving accessibility by adding sloped ramps or pool lifts.

"The more you can market your facility as disability-friendly, the more you can attract an audience," Caden said. "You'll make your own decisions, but you're talking about 20 percent of the population. Not all of them need a pool lift or other means of improved accessibility, but many do. And a lot of senior citizens may need a lift."

This may become an even more central issue as baby boomers age and fill out facilities.

"Baby boomers are an active generation," Caden added. "And swimming is a great exercise, but one of the big issues is getting out of the pool, and a sloped entry or pool lift will allow people with disabilities or just aging patrons with arthritis or limited mobility to enjoy the water more often."

-Emily Tipping