Feature Article - January 2013
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Aquatics and Accessibility

Beyond ADA Compliance

By Chris Gelbach

Retrofitting Existing Pools

For existing pools that are not currently compliant, a pool lift is often the most practical addition as a primary means of access, since retrofitting a pool to include a sloped entry (ramp) can be a major construction project.

"A lift is easier to implement, and probably a more economical option, too, as opposed to a ramp, even in a new application," said Tom LaLonde, principal for Williams Architects, an Itasca, Ill.-based architectural firm that has worked on a number of public-sector pool projects. "The ramps can be quite extensive—they need to get you down into about three feet of water. The maximum slope of a ramp is one and twelve [depth to length]. So you're going to need somewhere in the range of 40 feet of ramp." This space requirement also means a pool lift is a more practical option for smaller pools.

For new purchases, portable lifts are only compliant if affixed to the pool deck or apron. The main two types of fixed lifts are sleeve-mounted and deck-mounted lifts. Anderson notes that sleeve-mounted lifts are sometimes favored by his hospitality clients that use the pool area for multiple purposes. "Hotels that have wedding receptions or poolside parties like the idea of a sleeve mount because they can remove the lift for events where people won't use the pool, because they do stand out," he said.

Because they are more readily removable, Anderson also sees advantages to sleeve mounts for facilities in northern climates, since they are easier to remove for offseason storage. But they are not always the best choice, or appropriate for all pool types. "I would recommend consulting with a lift representative to see what type of lift is best depending on the drainage system of your pool," he said.

For larger pools that need two means of entry, it is common to select a different approach for the second entry. For paraplegics and others who aren't ambulatory, a pool lift can provide more independent access into a pool than stairs or even a sloped entry, which can be difficult to traverse without assistance in an aquatic wheelchair. But other patrons with physical limitations often opt for other means of entry when provided the option because they feel self-conscious using a pool lift.

"A lot of people with disabilities would prefer a ramp or stair because the lift draws attention to them," said LaLonde. "There are people who don't need the lift, but can walk with some assistance. If they can walk into the pool as opposed to sit in the chair and be helped into the water, I think they'd prefer that."

At the Chicago Park District, which has 26 indoor and 51 outdoor pools, all of the pools are equipped with a pool lift, and some also have easy-access stairs or a zero-depth ramp. "Our philosophy in terms of disability access and advocacy in the park district is that people with disabilities and physical limitations should have options just like their non-disabled counterparts do. So we try to provide options," said Larry Labiak, disability policy officer for the Chicago Park District.

In his work for clients, LaLonde sees facilities with larger pools almost always opting for a pool lift for one of the two entry options, and estimates that it's a 50/50 split between a sloped entry and a transfer wall or stairs for the second means of entry. "We do see many of our clients opting for the ramp, even though it's a costly proposition for them," he said.

After ensuring the accessibility of the swimming pools, Anderson recommends looking at your hot tubs. For those, a primary means of accessible entrance can be a transfer wall. "If you have a partially raised hot tub, that might only involve mounting a couple of grab bars on the wall to allow the transfer," he said.

For other aquatic features, becoming compliant may be cost-prohibitive, and, therefore, not readily achievable. For example, wading pools are required to have a sloped entry. "If you don't have it now, it's a pretty big deal trying to retrofit a wading pool to have that, so that might be something that goes on your long-term plan for modification," said Anderson.