The ADA, Swimming Pools, and the Hotel Industry

Two years ago, the government developed revised accessibility standards for swimming pools, among other recreation areas, after much discussion and comment. As is routine with the development of new building standards, they didn’t go into effect immediately. Advisories were published and information was made available for people who might be affected by the guidelines, giving them time to research compliance options and decide how they wanted to proceed. The goal was to make sure that everyone had the time, and space, to enact modifications to their facilities if necessary.

The Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, and included discussion about accessibility. The fact that 20 years later, many public areas were still inaccessible and new guidelines were necessary is telling. Many of those facilities had been built in a post-ADA landscape, by businesses well aware that ADA rules would apply to them. They were aware because they’d already spent years and substantial dollars trying to dodge the original 1990 guidelines, coming up with creative ways to argue they shouldn’t apply. Those businesses fought for extensions of grace periods left and right while digging in their heels on modifying existing facilities and designing new construction.

The refrain that accessibility is expensive and too much work comes from industry, because businesses apparently have a problem with disabled employees and customers. When access is folded into new construction it can be extremely cost effective to implement, yet often isn’t, resulting in modifications after the fact, which, yes, can cost more. The fact that accessibility still isn’t a routine consideration in the design phrase is ridiculous, especially since resources on universal design are readily available and there are so many clear advantages to designing for as many people as possible—and not just the advantage of being compliant with the law.

Cue 2012, when those 2010 regulations were set to start going into effect. Simultaneous screams were heard across the United States as businesses expressed shock and horror that yes, the guidelines they were fully aware of and had been warned about applied to them too, not just some fictional hotels, recreation centres, and other facilities. Who, me? Make my pool accessible? I thought you were talking about someone else! We’re just a humble hotel with two Olympic-sized pools and 1,000 rooms, there’s no way those guidelines could have applied to us. Why yes, we did put those pools in in 2011, why does that matter?

The response to the deadline was not, of course, to implement ramps, lifts, and other accessibility measures as prescribed by law. It was to scream and wail in the media, it was to issue statements about how hard accessibility is, and, of course, it was to fight legally, spending substantial amounts of money to argue that those guidelines didn’t apply. It probably would be cheaper to just put in a lift, rather than paying an attorney to argue that a hotel should be allowed to violate the civil rights of guests, but apparently that is not where the priorities of executives lie.

Some facilities even put pressure on the public, arguing that they would have to close their pools if forced to go through with the accessibility modifications. This neat bit of blackmail served a twofold purpose; one, it set the public up to support the case against accessibility, and two, it cemented ableist ideas in members of the public, who suddenly had a population to blame for a pool closure. This situation comes up repeatedly with accessibility—businesses threaten to close, citing those pesky disabled people, and members of the public decide to hate people with disabilities, rather than to question the motives of the business.

Many disabled people are extremely excited about the pool accessibility guidelines, because it can be hard to find an accessible pool. Like everyone else, some of us like to swim and enjoy it as recreation as well as exercise. Some of us also derive additional benefits from water therapy, and need access to pools to do stretches and work with trainers. For people who are traveling a lot, or moving into a new community, finding a pool they can actually get in and out of can be a balancing act, and a frustrating one at that.

If all pools are accessible, people don’t have to call around to see if they can actually get into pools they want to use. If all pools are accessible, people don’t have to travel an hour only to find out that the pool actually isn’t accessible and the person at the desk didn’t understand what the caller meant by ‘accessible.’ If all pools are accessible, people don’t have to interrupt courses of physical therapy or fitness training while traveling or relocating. If all pools are accessible, ‘going to the pool’ can be just as casual a thing for people with physical disabilities as it is for everyone else.

The blowback when it came to pool accessibility is yet another reminder of the social attitudes about disability, and how adroitly the shapers of the conversation direct it. People shouldn’t be angry at people with disabilities for wanting to be able to use swimming pools safely and with a minimum of disruption. They should be supporting the right of everyone to access pool facilities. Instead, they’re blaming people with physical disabilities for pool closures or the threat of such closures, and they’re viewing ‘accessibility’ as an enemy, something to be resisted and complained about, rather than as a value-neutral or even good thing.

I could say that some of those people might want accessible pools someday themselves, and thus should have a vested interest in supporting access, but that would be petty.