Federal rules scheduled to take effect next month are supposed to increase pool usability for people with disabilities.
Changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2010 say public pools — including those at hotels, recreation centers and public parks — must be upgraded to provide accessibility for disabled swimmers. The law doesn’t affect private clubs or pools owned by neighborhood associations that aren’t open to the public.
For most of those affected pools, the upgrades required are mechanical lifts that help people with disabilities get into the water.
The initial deadline for the ADA regulations was March 16, but confusion over the details and pool owners’ insistence for more time caused the Justice Department to give them until May 21.
Some are now scrambling to meet the deadline.
For swimmers with disabilities the changes are overdue.
Gainesville resident Justin Pressley, president of Access to a Better Tomorrow, is quadriplegic.
In the past, Pressley said, going on vacation with family has sometimes been frustrating with few hotels offering pool accessibility.
“Over the years, I’ve found that hardly any have a lift,” he said. “I live an active lifestyle, and when I go on vacations, I like to use the same amenities as my family.”
But it’s not just hotel pools that Pressley wants to access. He also has given input to both the city of Gainesville and the Northeast Georgia YMCA on providing accessibility for local pools.
A few years ago, when Gainesville was planning the Frances Meadows Aquatic and Community Center, Pressley offered insight on what kinds of lifts would work for the greatest number of people.
Now the center provides several access options for disabled swimmers.
In one pool, there is a railed ramp entryway into the heated water. The ramp can be used with an aquatic wheelchair that goes into the water. Erika Woods, an 83-year-old Gainesville resident and Frances Meadows regular, prefers to walk down the ramp while clinging to the rails.
Woods, who is not very steady on her feet these days, said the pool’s accessibility is her best chance to stay active.
“Swimming,” she said, “is the only exercise I can do.”
In addition to the ramp, there are several portable lifts the center uses at its multiple pools.
While Frances Meadows was built with accessibility in mind, many existing hotels and resorts are finding the new standards somewhat difficult and expensive.
Lake Lanier Islands Resort has the equipment for a pool lift on site, waiting for installation, said resort CEO Grier Todd.
While Todd stopped short of giving the cost of new equipment, he did offer that “it’s not cheap, but it is the law.”
According to The Association of Pool and Spa Professionals, research shows that between 235,000 and 310,000 pools require the upgrade. Manufacturers estimate the lifts run $3,500 to $6,500, and installation can double those costs. Altogether, owners could face combined costs exceeding $1 billion.
Still, whatever hurdles pool operators face will ensure fewer obstacles for thousands of
“You have to look at two sides of the coin,” Todd said. “There are obvious advantages for people with disabilities to have access.”
Once the requirements take effect, the Justice Department will investigate complaints and can fine businesses up to $55,000 for the first offense and double that for further violations. Pools operated by local governments don’t face monetary penalties but are subject to federal oversight.
However, some pool owners are just becoming aware of the rules, even though they were passed in 2010 with a 2012 deadline.
Management at Lanier Inn and Suites in Gainesville only learned of the regulations through a trade magazine article in recent weeks, said hotel supervisor Marisol Leal.
The hotel is still looking at the steps it needs to take to get in compliance by the deadline, she said.
The government can give pools more time if they show financial hardship and have a plan to save up for the equipment.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.