Feature Article - January 2013
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Aquatics and Accessibility

Beyond ADA Compliance

By Chris Gelbach

Making Differences Float Away

When you look at the sheer numbers of people who can benefit from pool accessibility, it's anything but a niche audience. Caden estimates that 18 percent of Americans are disabled and that when you also consider seniors, between 25 and 30 percent of the population could benefit from an accessible pool. "If you're a parks and rec department and you're owned by taxpayers, that's a pretty large minority group that you'll want to accommodate," he said.

Moreover, these are the populations that can most benefit from the therapeutic effects of water. Aquatic aerobics are hugely popular with seniors, and pools give them a way to exercise with less joint pain and without worries of breaking a hip. Others with physical limitations can likewise often find relief in the gravity-defying effects of water. "I work with a lot of people with back problems, and they tell me that being in the water swimming is the only time they don't feel pain," said Rippetoe. "Water therapy is just incredible for people."

Other water sports can also effectively diminish the differences between the able-bodied and those with physical limitations. As examples, the Chicago Park District's programming includes adaptive scuba classes, as well as a partnership with the Judd Goldman Adaptive Sailing Foundation that helps more than 1,000 participants experience the joy and independence of sailing each year.

The district has additionally built accessible rowing sites for its growing adaptive rowing program. "If you have a lower-extremity disability, but normal upper-body function, the beauty of being in a kayak is that once you're in, there's no disability," said Labiak. "It levels the waterway for all."

Likewise, the accessible beach walks at 16 of the city's 31 beaches along Lake Michigan also enhance inclusion, while providing tangible benefits to other park visitors. "Guys with coolers who want to get through 400 feet of sand use them, and so do moms with strollers," said Labiak. "So we like to think that if it's a benefit to someone with a disability, it's a benefit to someone else, as well."

And with the nation's 79 million baby boomers poised to turn 65 in the coming years, aquatic accessibility features of all kinds are likely to become even more integral to serving customers over time. "Many of these individuals will become the very people who are primary users of this kind of equipment," said Labiak. "For me, the bottom line is, don't be afraid of the ADA. Don't balk at providing access. Embrace it. Because everybody benefits if we comply."