For the nearly 20 percent of the population with disabilities, the Americans with Disabilities Act removed architectural and social barriers that had prevented them from enjoying the same privileges of living in the United States as able-bodied citizens.

But for owners and managers of facilities, ADA has meant facing a host of challenges in interpretation and implementation.

Architects, designers and engineers have had to re-shape their visions and begin to embrace a new concept called "universal design."

With the looming March 15 compliance deadline, aquatics professionals of all stripes no longer have a choice. They must address ADA barriers, or risk lawsuits.

Indeed, this legislation has spawned a new type of disability advocate: the professional plaintiff. Armed with tape measures, inclinometers and a set of ADA regulations, this group has promoted a barrier-free society through instigating litigation and lodging complaints.

Last year, the Department of Justice published a revision to the original ADA regulations. This revision addressed a number of facilities that were omitted from the 1991 regulations, including aquatic operations.

Here’s what you need to know to meet the requirements of this legislation — and avoid legal entanglement.

First off, be proactive. Assuming you understand the requirements of the 2010 revision to ADA regulations, begin an implementation strategy. Any new construction project or any facility undergoing modifications must fully comply with the 2010 regulations.

For existing pools, those measuring more than 300 perimeter feet need at least two accessible means of entry, one of which needs to be either a pool lift or a sloped entry. The secondary means of entry can be either a lift or sloped entry, or pool access stairs, transfer system, or transfer wall. Pools measuring less than 300 perimeter feet need one accessible means of entry, either a pool lift or sloped entry. Spas need one entry, which can be either a pool lift, transfer system or a transfer wall.

For existing facilities, the starting point is the barrier removal analysis. This process includes the following items:

• Determining if the facility falls under ADA jurisdiction (Publicly operated pools — those in city parks, public schools and the like — fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice and must comply, along with privately owned public accommodations such as hotels and motels. Apartment and condominium complexes — and some private clubs — are usually exempt from ADA regulations.)

• Auditing each body of water

• Reviewing existing means of access

Once the barrier removal analysis is complete, you are ready to develop an implementation plan.

The implementation plan is the most important component in preparing to create an accessible environment for your aquatics facility. This exercise will not only help you make the required barrier removal modifications according to your terms, but it also will shield you against any punitive remedies in the event you inadvertently overlook something. The plan of action should include:

• Results of your barrier removal analysis

• Modifications you will perform

• Outline of any additional staff training

• Timetable for executing your plan

Each barrier removal issue should be reviewed to determine if that modification is readily achievable. That is the standard to which existing facilities are required to comply. Readily achievable means able to be accomplished without much difficulty or expense.

What is and is not readily achievable is subjective and is considered on a case by case basis. The decision on whether or not a modification is readily achievable is the responsibility of the owner of the facility.

Your plan should describe any new policies or procedures that will be initiated as part of your accessibility program. These procedures can include a revised check-in policy for swimmers entering your pool, or instructions for setting up a pool lift and providing any assistance to swimmers using the lift.

It is essential that all of these activities be thoroughly documented in a written format and kept on file within your facility. This is NOT a requirement, but it is an easy way to show that your facility has been proactive in addressing barrier removal responsibilities under the ADA regulations. Having this activity documented will greatly reduce any possible exposure to punitive action in the event you ever encounter a complaint regarding your facility’s accessibility.

The next step is putting the plan into action by acquiring the means of access you have selected. Whatever means of access you decide to purchase, be sure that it results in a facility that meets the guidelines.

Compliance is a combination of an access means that meets the requirements plus an installation that also meets the requirements. A product that meets the requirements may not always result in a compliant installation if it is not properly installed.

Once your equipment is ordered and installed, it is vitally important that your staff is trained to operate it.

It makes a lot of sense to review all of your barrier removal modifications with your staff. Let them know the steps your facility has taken to create an accessible environment and the reasons for doing so.

Carefully review any revised policies and procedures to ensure that your staff understands and follows them.

It never hurts to also provide some sensitivity training so that your staff is comfortable working with people with disabilities.

Let us hope that 20 years from now when the next revision to the Americans with Disabilities Act is released, accessible swimming pools will be just as commonplace as curb cuts and accessible parking spaces are today.