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 fast.

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 edge.

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 complying.

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 vessel.

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 wading pools.

The standards also include specifications for transfer walls and transfer systems.

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 pay taxes.

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 there.

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 maintained.

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.