In designing a pool facility, Scott Hester has a lot to consider. Besides materials, size, location, features, demographics and budget, he has to create a pool accessible to everyone — from small children to the elderly, the athletic to the disabled. It’s the needs of the handicapped that he says people often comprehend the least.

“[Facility owners] don’t fully understand or have had to deal with someone who has had a handicap,” says the studio director and principal at Counsilman-Hunsaker in St. Louis. “One challenge is convincing owners that this needs to be a priority from not just a legal standpoint, but ethically, too.”

Many facilities try to follow the Americans with Disabilities Act, which outlines compliance requirements. However, experts say some operators are confused by the language, or which parts apply to their facilities. Some are also reluctant to follow the guidelines because their organizations may not serve any disabled patrons, or because ADA compliance costs money.

But having an accessible swimming pool is extremely important because the water is a key place for the disabled to get needed exercise — and a sense of freedom they can’t find anywhere else, says James Rimmer, Ph.D., director of the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “Swimming is one of the best activities for everyone, but more importantly, for people with disabilities because it’s gravity-free,” he says

In attempts to be ADA-compliant, some operators are scrambling to adhere to the final rules. In many cases, operators may believe they are compliant when, in fact, they are not. As the final ADA ruling heads toward becoming law, here are some ideas from experts on how operators can stay ahead of the game and meet the needs of their patrons.

Rule of the pool

Currently, the final rule issued by the United States Access Board is undergoing implementation to become law through the United States Department of Justice. The process may take approximately 12 months, but that gives operators plenty of room to become compliant, says John McGovern, executive director of the Northern Suburban Special Recreation Association in Northbrook, Ill.

“Whatever steps the Department of Justice takes, it can’t issue a regulation less stringent than what the Access Board has issued,” he says. Here’s a summary of the main aspects in being compliant, and the different options for operators.

Swimming pool. First, at least two methods of entry must be available to a standard swimming pool, with the exception of pools less than 300 feet long. One entry must be either a sloped ramp (such as a zero-depth entry) or a lift. The second can be a sloped entry, lift, transfer wall, transfer system or pool stairs — and unlike its original ruling, it can duplicate the first means of entry, though different methods are recommended.

In a pool less than 300 linear feet, only one means is necessary. In a wading pool, a sloped entry is the only allowed access. All sloped entries need handrails on both sides. Spas can be accessed with a pool lift, transfer wall or transfer system. Wave pools and lazy rivers require at least one way in by using a lift, sloped entry or transfer system.

Types of access. People have different preferences for entry, so having a variety from which to choose would give disabled patrons the most independence and comfort, experts say. A recent community pool that McGovern worked with just built a five-pool complex, and he encouraged them to experiment. “Get a better sense of what the public can use,” he says.

Sloped entries, or ramps, are a popular way for lots of patrons to enter the pool, disabled or not. To be ADA-compliant, such entries must slope 1 inch for every 12 inches in length, or they will be too steep to exit the pool. In addition, the slope must extend to a depth of 24 to 30 inches below the water. Handrails must also be on both sides of the zero-depth entry, which Hester says some operators are reluctant to add.

“The issue with ramps is that most [places] have limited space and those ramps take up a ton of space,” says Lynette Jamison, director of rehab and aquatic services at the Desert Pain Institute in Mesa, Ariz. Otherwise, patrons like ramps because they can get in and out of pools easily on their own.

Lifts are another method of entry that saves space. “It can be a $4,000 to $5,000 investment, but that’s the easiest and most common-sense approach to take because you’re not going to affect the pool itself,” Hester days.

A lift also needs to be user-friendly. “It should be used by an individual independent of getting a key or needing someone to help use it,” Rimmer says. Lifts requiring manual cranking make it more difficult for someone to enter the pool.

In addition, lifts have a weight limit of approximately 300 pounds, though the toughest lifts can withstand 400 pounds, Jamison says.

Another option, transfer walls, are raised walls between 16 to 19 inches high that let people shift from wheelchair to wall and into the pool. The patron uses a grab bar to ease into the water. Spas are usually accessed with a transfer wall because the raised wall around the spa can double as an ADA-accessible entry.

Movable floors, though practical in use, are not an option as the second means of entry. According to comments made on the proposed rule, movable floors do not provide independent access and require the pool to be evacuated, thus drawing too much attention to the disabled person.

Locker rooms. For the most part, locker rooms have been well-addressed, McGovern says. There must be an accessible route through the locker rooms to the sink and showers. And there should be no raised barrier in front of the shower stall that prevents a wheelchair from entering, he adds. Reach areas are critical as well. For example, a soap dispenser has to be 48 inches above the ground, and shower controls need to be within reach.

In some cases, changing spaces aren’t adequate, Jamison says. A patron might come with a caregiver of the opposite gender, and special accommodations must be made to allow both in a locker room or dressing area. A table or bench also may be required to help the person change.

Misunderstandings and more

In an effort to be ADA-compliant, pool operators sometimes can make assumptions that end up in complications and embarrassment.

When choosing the different entry options, operators should test the ways out themselves to get a sense of what it’s like. They should also consider patrons’ dignity. “[Disabled entries] can kind of stand out and some people get embarrassed by it,” McGovern says.

The first thing is to think of ADA as a “starting point,” says Jeff Underwood, president of Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, Ala. “Too many people see it as … the most they have to do, the highest standard. It’s really a minimum standard. In ADA, you don’t really see a broad perspective on issues such as access.”

Lakeshore Foundation, which Rimmer calls the “gold standard,” is a rehab facility catering to this specific audience. Non-rehab people, other than family members, are not allowed to use the center’s pool. There are several ways of getting into the pool: lifts, stairs, zero-grade entry, transfer walls, the works. The center even has a cat-call sensor for the blind, which lets them know when they’re getting close to the pool’s edge.

But, more importantly, there was “a lot of dialogue” with the architects and staff during the design stage, Underwood says. That is something city parks and rec departments need to do. Disabled patrons want to have as much independence as the nondisabled, which means going to the pool should be accomplished with as little trouble as possible.

For example, facilities with multiple pools sometimes try to use one lift for two bodies of water, McGovern says. Each pool has to have its own separate access area, and some pools require two.

Sloped entries also are a common issue. “A lot of pool operators run out of space and so they’re sitting with the architect who says, ‘Let’s just make it steeper,’” McGovern says. “It’s fine, but the zero-depth is no longer compliant as an entry.” He has seen a lot of ramps into pools that are too steep for wheelchairs to exit.

Another issue is the use of handrails along the zero-beach entry, Hester says. For many it’s an aesthetic issue, but the other problem is that kids like to play on them, making it difficult to guard.

And don’t forget about deck space. Wheelchairs and other equipment take up considerable room on decks, so when designing accessible pools, operators and architects must keep this in mind. Otherwise, decks can become overcrowded and dangerous.

Lastly, operators need to be aware that ADA compliance benefits more than just the handicapped. Elderly patrons, toddlers, or injured people all require easy access into the pool.

Beyond ADA

As Underwood emphasizes, ADA is minimal compliance. It doesn’t address some other areas that could make a patron’s experience much easier and more comfortable.

“Many times, facilities are not properly equipped with accessible facilities or staff trained to assist individuals with special needs,” says Juliene Hefter, president of the National Recreation and Park Association’s National Aquatic Branch. The organization distributes ADA information through the National Therapeutic Recreation Society. “We must educate our staffs on the [correct] ways to adjust the skills being taught [so they’re] more appropriate for individuals who may have special needs.”

For example, water temperature is important for different patrons. “People with multiple sclerosis might need a cooler temperature,” Rimmer says. However, warmer waters are better for older and younger people. Working with different populations at the right pool temperature is important.

Offering adapted aquatics classes would also greatly benefit the community, experts say. This can bring local groups to the swimming pool for lessons and aquatic activities once unavailable to them. Classes for people of all ages and levels can be offered. Many communities that began reaching out to the adapted aquatics groups received such positive feedback and high enrollment in classes that they drew higher attendance. Such was the case at the Fairfax County Park Authority in Fairfax, Va., whose classes now range from lessons for special needs preschoolers and arthritic exercise to a Special Olympics Swim Training Team.

To meet these needs, scheduling classes and spacing takes some care. “Some people need more time to get dressed and undressed, and sometimes pool time is very limited [as a result],” Rimmer says. Some of them also may require a separate lane or use of the diving well for certain types of activities, but it may not be available to them.

Finally, being creative can help meet some of the patrons’ needs. At Desert Pain Institute, patients who require additional oxygen place their tanks into a floating bucket that keeps them from being tangled up in their hoses. They also use a floating frame that simulates a walker in the pool. And some folks also like using buoyant collars around their necks, which help them float vertically without going under water. All of these ideas, Jamison says, can be easily transferred to the community pool.

McGovern agrees: “The benefits of aquatics for people with disabilities are huge. But if they can’t get in and use your pool, they’ll never be a customer.”