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.

Benefits of Aquatic Exercise

Many facilities are creating programs specifically for different groups of disabled persons ranging from learning and behavioral disabilities to the full spectrum of physical disabilities. Due to the comforting, weight-reducing environment of aquatic exercise, water is ideal for those recovering from injury, those who have chronic ailments such as arthritis and fibromyalgia, the obese, and also those with cognitive disorders like autism.

When creating programs specifically for your facility, it is important to consider the needs of your members or constituents and the capabilities of your instructors. Special training and skills are needed for many user groups including those with cognitive disorders.

The New England Center for Children is a nonprofit school for autism treatment and education located in Boston. The facility features a 3,250-square-foot, six-lane swimming pool with stairs across the entire shallow end and depths that change across the width of the pool as opposed to its length like that of traditional pools. Phil Leonard, the adapted physical education specialist at the school, feels that it is vital to understand how the pool will be used before it's built.

"You have to know your population well enough to plan ahead for behaviors and facility design. The way that our pool is designed is perfect for our students who are more hesitant until they are comfortable enough to feel safe and to allow them to relax and enjoy the water," Leonard explained. At the Center for Excellence they use a ratio of two instructors per 15 students and also rely on a system where individual teachers are assigned to specific students who need special attention.

Leonard added that in his opinion aquatics offers a great chance to provide students with structured physical activities and learning opportunities in a more fun environment. "Aquatics is great for special needs as it provides them an opportunity to exercise with more freedom, more comfortably and more easily than land-based exercise due to the buoyancy of water. Our kids gravitate toward it. Even when the time is spent in work-based exercises it feels like fun."

Translating Practice Into Profits

The rising awareness of the benefits of aquatherapy has created a rare situation where doing the right thing not only helps those who need it, but also helps your facility to be profitable. The disabled typically utilize pools during non-peak hours during the late morning to early afternoon when many pools sit empty or are barely used.

One of the biggest complaints that has prevented therapy programs from being more successful in the past is the fact that therapy users and lap swimmers want different things in a swimming pool. Lap swimmers prefer colder and deeper water, whereas therapy users prefer warmer water and shallower depths. Many modern facilities are moving toward multiple pool facilities where each user group can have their needs accommodated. For facilities without enough space to add another pool, installing movable floors is an option—although an expensive one and one that doesn't address the temperature dilemma.

The reason that facilities are looking toward incorporating more therapy-friendly programs is that, along with learn-to-swim classes, therapy classes are typically a top draw and facilities can charge enough per person to generate revenue off each class. Therapy classes also go a long way toward building community and positive consensus in communities with a politically active demographic group.

Another revenue-generating recent trend in aquatic therapy has been to install pre-manufactured therapy pool units such as those by Hydroworx and AFW as a separate body of water in a facility. These units typically have floors that raise and drop according to operator preference or user need and additional features such as in-floor treadmills, underwater video cameras, the ability to generate currents to walk or swim against, and specialty therapy hoses for massage or treatment. The units do require a special instructor, and typically you need a physical therapist's referral for their use. While expensive, they can provide a significant return on investment if the facility reaches out to local hospitals, rehabilitation clinics and senior citizen groups, and can keep the pool booked. Additionally Medicare and many insurance companies will pay for a certain number of sessions in these pools each year.

The need for therapeutic water space will only continue to grow as people live longer and look to aquatic exercise as a way to get back in shape, reduce pain and recreate with their peers. Keep in mind as you pursue these options and this potentially lucrative market segment that while ADA and ADAAG make you design and build your facility a certain way, that you should strive rather to comply with the spirit of ADA and not the letter of the law. In many cases you will be providing our nation's largest minority group with their only outlet for improving their physical well-being.


Justin Caron, a former NCAA Division I competitive swimmer, is an associate with Aquatic Design Group, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based architecture and engineering firm specializing in the design of competitive, recreational and leisure-based aquatic facilities. For more information, visit

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