After more than 20 years on the books, the Americans with Disabilities Act now includes provisions that officially address aquatics facilities. The good news is, that will make it easier for
all populations to enjoy facilities nationwide. But it also means
pool operators and industry professionals need to take some time to
understand the intricacies of the new requirements. Meanwhile,
there’s a compliance deadline that’s coming up
The new rules pose “a responsibility and an
opportunity,” says John Caden, director of pool lifts at
manufacturer S.R. Smith, based in Canby, Ore. “It’s a
responsibility for pool operators to make their pools accessible
… and it’s a financial opportunity for those in the
commercial side of aquatics to sell this equipment to [facilities]
that need to come up to these standards.”
Passed in 1990, the ADA included requirements for several areas of
public life; however, recreational settings went largely
unaddressed. Guidelines addressing recreation venues were finally
published in 2004, and officially codified in 2010. To help you
understand the aquatics-related 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible
Design, and avoid the kind of confusion associated with the last
federal law dealing with pools (the VGBA), the following Q & A
provides background information about the ADA language and what it
means for your facility.
What are the requirements?
The 2010 standards now part of the ADA state that all public pools
must have a sloped entry or a lift. These are considered primary
forms of access.
In addition, any commercial pool measuring more than 300 perimeter
feet must have a second means of entry: a lift, ramp, transfer wall
(a low wall with handles that helps people lift themselves over the
side of the pool), a transfer system (which resembles a set of
small portable stairs) or accessible pool stairs.
The standards discourage against using the same method twice.
Instead, installing different forms of access will address more
diverse needs, and therefore serve the most people.
Regardless of size, pools where entry is limited to one area, such
as wave pools and lazy rivers, are only required to have a single
form of access: a lift, sloped entry or transfer system. Wading
pools must have a sloped entry. Nothing is required for catch
pools, but there needs to be a clear route through the deck to the
Spas are to be outfitted with a lift, transfer wall or transfer
system. When there is a group of spas, only 5 percent of the units
are required to meet the standard, with a minimum of one
Experts predict that lifts will be the preferred method for
updating pools and spas because they’re the most
cost-effective and practical. To comply, these devices must enable
independent operation by the user. Lifts also must have seats
measuring at least 16 inches wide and include a footrest. (Spa
lifts don’t need footrests.)
Each lift has slightly different installation instructions, so
follow manufacturer training or published directions. Once
installed, the lift must place users into water less than 48 inches
deep, unless the entire vessel is deeper. Secondary lifts are
exempt from that requirement.
A ramp or zero-depth entry option must have a 1-to-12 slope,
meaning that it takes 12 feet of run for the elevation to change 1
foot. It must end in water between 24- and 30 inches deep. Any ramp
longer than 30 feet must include at least one landing that falls in
that specified depth. In wading pools, the slopped entry and
landings (if provided) must end at the deepest part of the
In addition, the 60-by-60-inch area of the deck leading into the
zero-depth entry must be nearly flat — at a 1-to-48 slope
— and the sloped entry must include at least two handrails,
spaced 33 to 38 inches apart. Wave pools, lazy rivers and other
elements where access is limited to one area don’t have to
meet this handrail requirement, and handrails are not required in
The standards also include specifications for transfer walls and
Many facilities can receive a tax credit or deduction for upgrades
to meet ADA requirements, however, local governments and
nonprofits can’t reap this benefit because they don’t
What is the deadline for compliance?
As of March 15, 2011, all newly constructed pools and spas must
comply. Rules are not as clear for existing facilities. The ADA
states that they must be updated by March 15, 2012; however, there
is an allowance for those that can’t make retrofits right
away. Such operations can draft a written plan, to demonstrate a
good-faith effort in case a complaint is filed. Unfortunately, for
these cases the U.S. Department of Justice has not clarified when
actual renovations must be completed.
“The trick question here is: By what date do those pools have
to be made accessible?” says John McGovern, president of
Recreation Accessibility Consultants, LLC, in Hoffman Estates, Ill.
“There’s not a clear answer.”
But he has a recommendation to address this issue: “We tell
all our clients, ‘Do not extend the time to retrofit your
pools and spas any longer than three years past the effective date.
That takes you from March 15, 2012, to 2015.'”
Caden adds that this allowance was meant for entities with multiple
pools and spas, not single facilities with a pool and spa. Even
those operations, he says, should have started the process by the
posted deadline. Property owners can’t sit passively and just
promise to buy the lifts in three years. Instead, they should be
upgrading pools and spas incrementally.
The ADA does offer safe harbor, or grandfathering, for facilities
built to guidelines published in 1991, but this does not apply to
pool, spa and waterfeature requirements since no earlier rules were
available for those elements. While some peripheral areas such as
decks, were covered in the 1991 guidelines, designers must abide by
one standard for an entire facility. Therefore, basically all
aquatics facilities must comply by March 15, 2012.
Do the ADA requirements apply to all commercial pools?
Yes and no.
Publicly operated pools — those in city parks and the like
— fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice,
and therefore must comply, along with hotels and motels. Apartment
and condominium complexes — and some private clubs —
are covered by the Fair Housing Act and the ADA doesn’t apply
However, if the property acts like a “public
accommodation” by renting units out for vacationers, or
selling entry or memberships for the pool to the public, then it
does fall under the ADA.
There are also two other exceptions: facilities where alterations
would detract from a site’s historic significance, and those
facing financial hardship. But that would be hard to justify,
considering the relatively low cost of updating a pool compared
with larger-scale upgrades, Caden says.
Where should aquatics go from here?
With an estimated 300,000 public pools in the United States,
aquatics professionals have their work cut out for them.
Some categories of facility — such as small hotels, Caden
says — are less likely than others to fulfill accessibility
requirements, and operators of compliant pools should create plans
to be sure that accessibility equipment is properly
But what it really comes down to is getting to the heart of the
spirit of the requirements, which is to make pools more
user-friendly for those with special needs. For example, installing
a lift is good, but you need to consider that if you don’t
also provide water-accessible wheelchairs, those lifts will be
useless for some patrons.