Feature Article - January 2013
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Aquatics and Accessibility

Beyond ADA Compliance

By Chris Gelbach

Accessibility for New Facilities

When considering a new facility, recreation managers typically have more flexibility in their options to create a compliant facility—and to go beyond compliance to build pools that are more inclusive and usable for all audiences.

In selecting inclusive designs, facilities can also go beyond the letter of the law to include accessibility features that offer benefits to all patrons.

For example, the Chicago Park District normally includes a pool lift as the primary means of entry at its older pools built before the ADA's introduction. "For new construction, the pools are at least going to have zero depth and the option for a pool lift and easy-access stairs," said Labiak. "And there could be cases where we would have all three means."

LaLonde's firm has been creating pools with zero-entry designs since the late '80s when they were first introduced to the market. At the time, the firm was surprised to learn just how popular the feature was with all pool visitors. "When we started doing those, we found that 80 percent of people wanted to be in three feet of water or less. And we'd find that a lot of people would literally just sit in six inches of water and enjoy being there with their children playing around them," he said. "Where you can do zero entry, I think it's an advantage."

Since sloped entries require so much additional space, they are practical only for larger pools. "But visually, it looks better," said Anderson. "And if you want to be inclusive and have everybody using the pool the same way, it's definitely more inclusive."

In selecting inclusive designs, facilities can also go beyond the letter of the law to include accessibility features that offer benefits to all patrons. As an example, LaLonde mentioned designs that incorporate a long step-in entry along the whole side of a pool that gets people into 2 feet of water rather quickly. "Parents love it—it gets them into about 2 feet of water in a very safe and comfortable manner," he said. "They can sit on the steps, play with their children. And the steps enable you to get to 2 feet of water in six to eight feet, as opposed to 40 feet with a zero entry."

Designs incorporating stairways that are smaller—yet still wider than normal stairs—can offer similar benefits. "A stairway is usually 3 or 4 feet wide and it becomes a very functional element that gets people in and out of the pool," said LaLonde. "But when you extend that up to 10 or 15 feet or more, it becomes a component that people don't only use functionally to get into the water, but also just enjoy."

Serving Physically Challenged Populations

Once you have an accessible aquatic facility, it's important to keep the adaptive equipment in good working order—and the facility welcoming to physically challenged patrons. For a pool lift, that means having your staff educated on its operation, checking it regularly and keeping battery-powered lifts charged.

Because having a lift may attract more people with disabilities, it can also draw more attention to other areas of your aquatic facility that are not up to code. "If someone comes to use the pool lift, they may find that the shower's not accessible, or there's not an accessible locker, or that the accessible parking out front is not properly striped," said Anderson. "There may be other things that weren't done right in the first place in terms of accessible features—and facilities should address those when they make the pool accessible."

These features also should be prioritized in the handling of maintenance requests. To do this successfully, the Chicago Park District purchased extra lifts so that if one fails, it can quickly be swapped out with another operational unit while it's being repaired. It also places repairs of things like accessible toilets and showers to the top of the queue, since disabled visitors won't be able to use the facility at all if these aren't operational.

Taking the next step to provide programming for disabled patrons can involve specific programs for these audiences, as well as accommodations to help them take part in mainstream offerings.

Another consideration is teaching your staff how to be sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities. At the Chicago Park District, disability awareness and accessibility training was one of the first steps the disability policy department took when making its facilities accessible. Training employees 50 people at a time, the district trained nearly all of its more than 2,000 full-time employees over a two-year period.

For those facilities unsure of how to get started in training their staff, Caden recommends reaching out to disability groups. "There are groups in any community who would be glad to send somebody in a wheelchair or someone who's disabled out to a facility to have a workshop with staff," he said.

While not comprehensive, this kind of training can at least ensure that when someone with physical limitations enters your facility, it's not the first disabled person your staff members have ever encountered.