Recently I visited a local municipal swimming pool. I was there to get in a workout for an upcoming triathlon. After changing into my suit, I walked to the edge of the pool, put on my goggles and hopped in. As I started swimming, I was stopped by a swimmer sharing my lane. She informed me that another swimmer was getting into the lane with us. I said “Okay” with nothing more than a passing thought. But she added, “He’s blind.”

Since the age of 9 I’ve been involved with competitive swimming in some capacity or another. I have been a swimmer, coach, official and now I am a facility designer. During this time I have encountered many individuals with disabilities, both mental and physical. Each situation had a unique set of circumstances, however, after each encounter I walk away with the same feeling. I am delighted someone with a disability has the opportunity to enjoy the water the same way I do.

Designing aquatic facilities that accommodate disabled patrons has been a major priority for aquatic consultants for well over 25 years. In 1990 the Department of Justice adopted the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The document was an important first step for opening up the possibilities for people living with disabilities. However, there were some gaps in the guidelines. For example, there was minimal direction given for recreational amenities, such as swimming pools and spas. This deficiency created some challenges for architects and engineers. Designers had to extrapolate from the guidelines to create solutions for the numerous accessibility challenges inside aquatic facilities.

Help for aquatic designers came in 2004 when the United States Access Board published Accessible Swimming Pools & Spas, A Summary of Accessibility Guidelines. These guidelines provided consultants with strategies to achieve accessibility for various types of “newly constructed and altered” facilities, including swimming pools, spas, and wading pools. The guidelines recommended the minimum quantity and suggested types of entry as well as recommended dimensional configurations.

While the 2004 guidelines were very helpful to the industry, it was not a law. That changed on September 15, 2010 when the Department of Justice signed into law the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design. These standards officially gave designers, owners and operators the minimum requirements for accessible design.


From the beginning, the “Swimming Pools, Wading Pools and Spas” section of the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design regulation is very clear regarding the requirements for accessibility. It states, “at least two accessible means of entry shall be provided for swimming pools.” The list of suitable means of entry are: pool lifts, sloped entries (also referred to as a ramp), transfer walls, transfer systems and stairs. The regulations further state that a swimming pool must have either a compliant pool lift or compliant ramp as one of the two means of entry. Some professionals in the aquatics industry call this the primary means of entry.

Choosing the primary means of entry – pool lift or ramp – requires a designer or owner to consider a number of factors like available space, cost, and usability. In general, a pool lift meets these challenges in the simplest manner because there are many pool lift models available on the market. This is especially true in retrofit situations.

When selecting a pool lift designers, owners and operators must first make sure the unit can be operated unassisted from both the deck and water. This requirement means a swimmer must be able to move from the deck to the pool and vice versa without any assistance. In addition, the pool lift must meet requirements for water depth, seat location with respect to the pool’s edge, maneuvering space opposite the seat and water, seat height with respect to the pool deck, seat width, submerged depth of seat, and lifting capacity.

Like a pool lift, the choice to utilize a ramp requires specific considerations. The main requirement is the steepness of the entry. The slope shall not be steeper than a ratio 1-foot of vertical change to 12-feet of horizontal distance (1:12). Also, the ramp must have a handrail along both sides of the ramp. The handrails along the ramp shall have a clear width between 33-inches and 38-inches. In addition, the handrails must reach to a minimum water depth of 24-inches, and a maximum of 30-inches.

Within the requirements for means of entry the Department of Justice offers a number of “advisory” comments. The first recommendation is that designers, owners and operators select two different means of entry (e.g. a pool lift plus stairs). The intent is to provide accessibility to a wider range of patrons. Another noteworthy suggestion is to provide the least possible length of ramp, and if possible, provide stairs. The intent of this recommendation is intended for “those individuals for whom distance presents a greater barrier than steps, e.g., people with heart disease or limited stamina.”

Exceptions and Specialty Pools

The “Swimming Pool, Wading Pools and Spas” section clarifies the specific dimensional and configuration requirements for each means of entry. The section also details exceptions, and defines the requirements for specialty pools such as wading pools, spas, wave pools, leisure/lazy rivers, sand bottom pools and slide catch (slide plunge) pools.

Exception Classification Requirement

Swimming pool that has less than 300 linear feet of wall

Only one means of access required, either pool lift or ramp

Wave pools, leisure/lazy rivers, sand bottom pools, and “other pools where user access is limited to one area.”

Pool lift, ramp or transfer system requirements

Wading pools

Ramp (handrails not required)


Pool lift, transfer wall or transfer system

Cluster of spas (no more than 5 percent but no fewer than one)

The spa in each cluster shall be required to provide either a pool lift, transfer wall or transfer system

Catch pools (as referred to as slide plunge pools)

Shall not be required to provide an accessible means of entry as long as an edge of the “catch pool edge is on an accessible route.”


The time to act is now. The 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design states that facilities must be updated by March 15, 2012. It is recommended that owners and operators begin the process of confirming their facility’s compliancy as soon as possible. In some cases the necessary steps may be as simple as providing documentation of the facility’s compliance. However, in other cases renovations may be necessary.