Complying with North American pool accessibility regulations

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Since 1990, HydroTher Hot Tubs have been the #1 choice of architects, consultants, designers and facility operators for commercial aquatic applications.

Modern times call for innovative solutions. This especially applies to the pool industry, where businesses facing notoriously high overhead costs are under pressure to either evolve with current demands or get left behind. Today, state-of-the-art aquatic facilities need to better adapt to the changing world around them—and a painfully evident part of this change is the rising cost of nearly everything. Strategies to offset such changes often include designs to make the facility more energy efficient, easy to operate, and more accessible to the people using them.

Participation drives revenue, therefore, accessibility has become an increasingly vital aspect despite being historically overlooked. The progression of aquatics access has been a long-fought battle for people with disabilities, and although most would agree there is still a long way to go, there are several noteworthy achievements which have brought pools to where they are today.1

Water- to battery-powered pool lifts

When it comes to pool access, the first major milestone was in 1980, when the first water-powered pool lift was introduced. While this design was a major development, it had its limitations. For instance, water hoses feeding the lift became tripping hazards and were eventually removed by running the water lines under the pool deck. The downside to this was a costly and permanent installation, which could later present issues if repairs were needed. In addition, they required a specific water pressure which was not always easy to achieve, and the design required a portion of the lift to remain in the water, leaving it susceptible to corrosion. All these factors influenced the shift from water-powered lifts and spurred the demand for simpler battery-powered lifts, which could sit on the pool deck, out of the water, and be removed from the deck when needed.

Thus, the first battery-powered lift was introduced in 1997, years after the signing of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which had not yet specified pool accessibility requirements. This first generation of battery-powered pool lifts were a marked improvement and solved many issues from their water-powered predecessors, but they fell short in terms of appearance and the overall attractiveness on the pool deck.

The popularity of zero-depth entry pools

Around the same time, zero-depth entry pools also became popular. It goes back to 2001, when Walt Disney World began to build and refurbish its pools to resemble beaches and lakes. While this was not necessarily done in the name of accessibility, it became a very popular design for waterparks and other high-budget pools; however, this still has its flaws.

First, zero-entry pools are expensive projects. They cannot be easily accomplished on existing pools, as the sloped entry requires more ground space than typical inground pools, and they still require aquatic access equipment, such as wheelchairs and walkers specifically designed for water use. Even with an aquatic wheelchair, a user who wants to swim must first enter the water to reach a depth deep enough to transfer out of their chair and into the pool. At this point, they must abandon their wheelchair, in a precarious position, in the middle of the pool, uncertain of where it might be when they are finished swimming. While aquatic wheelchairs and walkers are an aquatic access evolution in their own right, they still do not necessarily suit all needs.

The shift in the pool industry

When the ADA expanded to include swimming pools in 2012, everything changed. After public pools and lifts alike became subject to accessibility requirements, there was a major influx of pool lifts and manufacturers, but not all of them were committed to the continual evolution and improvement of these products to better suit the needs of modern consumers. Pool owners purchased a plethora of low-quality lifts in a rush to comply, with as little investment as possible. Now, those owners face the reality of having to replace them as their poorly made components and electronics began to fail and rust over time from the lack of maintenance.

As an aftermath, there were more opinions about pool lifts than ever before. What they should look like, how to make them more efficient, how to make them smaller (or potentially totally portable), and how to make them blend in better with their surrounding esthetics. To the credit of dedicated manufacturers and advocates, much of this has already been achieved.

Focusing on pool lift esthetics

With the introduction of solar powered pool lifts in recent years, facilities with direct sunlight can lower costs with low-maintenance, energy-efficient lifts. Another notable advancement, and possibly the most popular, is the variety of colour options now available on pool lifts.

Gone are the days of antiquated, bulky equipment looming over the pool deck. In addition to the more compact and portable designs, facilities can now purchase pool lifts in almost any colour imaginable. From earthy tones, such as greys and tans, to granite textured seats, and even bold colours, such as purple and hot pink for waterparks and universities. It is exciting to imagine what the future of pool access might hold, given the advancements it has already seen in such a short amount of time.

At the very core of their design principle, pools are meant to be inviting and beautiful; they are a small oasis amidst of the stress of everyday life. It is understandable why aquatic designers, resort owners, and pool owners would want their pool lift to match this overall esthetic. Unfortunately, there is a lack of desire to have a pool lift at all. “How can we make this invisible?” and “I do not need this, no one ever uses it,” are two examples of the biggest problems facing pool access today. By and large, the biggest hurdle pool access faces to this day is the desperate need for very big shift in societal perspectives.

Pool access needs to be de-stigmatized

It is the elephant in the room, but it begs discussion all the same. Part of the evolution of access in aquatic facilities is a slow but certain realization: the pool industry is simply not serving a “one-size-fits-all” population. With acts such as ADA and the introduction of the Accessible Canada Act in 2019, pool facilities must abide to rules and regulations to cater to every demographic.

People without a disability can also benefit from access equipment.

One billion people, which is around 15 per cent of the world’s population, have a disability; making them the “world’s biggest minority.”2 What many people do not understand is how disabilities can take countless different forms—many of which are not visible to the naked eye. Often, people think of pool lifts and the need for pool access and immediately imagine a wheelchair user, when, in fact, only a small percentage of people with disabilities use wheelchairs.

The integration of barrier-free access

Gone are the days of antiquated, bulky equipment looming over the pool deck. In addition to today’s more compact and portable designs, facilities can now purchase pool lifts in almost any colour imaginable. Photo by Brad Daane

To widen the scope of these perspectives, it is important to recognize the spectrum of people who need barrier-free access. For example, the aging population might have a hard time getting around, or people who have recently undergone surgery and need aquatic therapy, veterans who have lost limbs, or someone with multiple sclerosis who is having a particularly weak day—all these people could benefit from barrier-free pool access.

For them and many others, there is a flutter of excitement for these modern facilities aiming to accommodate as many people and abilities as possible. It is a positive sign indicating how the industry is headed in the right direction, but also a metaphorical “last call” for existing facilities who have yet to see the importance of aquatics access.

Inclusion is not simply a diplomatic gesture; it is the key to the industry’s growth.

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