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

By Justin Caron

The largest minority group in America does not discriminate against new members. Any one of us could become a member of this group at any time. They are our friends, our neighbors, our relatives and our spouses. Similar to other minority groups, inclusion in this group is not a choice. This group is becoming a powerful political force, and for decades they have shaped the way that any public facility can be designed and operated. They are also growing.

As life expectancy continues to increase, 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. This will further tax our already strained infrastructure. An infrastructure that is necessary for many disabled persons to complete even the everyday tasks that most of us take for granted. Below are some key statistics according to the U.S. Census Bureau:

  • 22 percent of America's current population is 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 (such as a cane, crutch or walker).

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed and forever changed the way that those with disabilities could live their lives. ADA is a comprehensive civil rights act that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. ADA can trace its roots to the Civil Rights Act of 1964—an act which essentially made it illegal for any place that received federal funds to discriminate on the basis of race, religion or national origin. Other notable laws have slowly expanded the 1964 Act to include gender, families and those with disabilities—all of which culminated with ADA being passed.

ADA's impact is felt across all public facilities because it requires that all newly constructed and altered places of public accommodation and commercial facilities be readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. In essence this simple language means that all new public facilities or significantly altered facilities must provide accessible buildings, as well as

accessible paths of travel to and amenities within each facility. While every part of the facility does not need to be handicapped accessible, there does need to be a way for a handicapped person to gain access to all areas and amenities therein.

ADA, ADAAG & Regulations

The reason this is important for aquatics is because aquatic therapy programs are one of the fastest growing and most profitable pool programs. Due to the buoyancy effect that water has on the body, pools provide a place where many disabled people can safely and comfortably exercise. However, before ADA and the more recently updated 2004 ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), it was very difficult for the disabled to access most public swimming pools, which would normally have a couple of ladders and sometimes a set of stairs. ADAAG required that all public pools have at least one access point that enabled a handicapped person to get in and out of a swimming pool. Pools that have over 300 linear feet of pool 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 transfer from the chair onto the wall and into the pool; a transfer system in which a person in a wheelchair can transfer from the chair onto a platform and "bump" their way down into the pool; and stairs with a dual hand rail.

On July 23 of this year 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 could be seen to impact the world of aquatics. It is Sec.36.311 Mobility devices:

(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 could be enforced as of January 2011, but won't be required until January 2012, and the extent of their reach and interpretation is 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 could be dangerous on a wet pool deck. Many other revisions such as specific instances when service animals may be removed from premises may face legal challenges in the future when they begin to be enforced.