Some 23 years after Congress used federal muscle to open jobs, public transportation and public accommodations to disabled Americans, another venue is coming under the federal mandate -- swimming pools.
Beginning this week, most public swimming pools, wading pools and spas must be accessible to disabled people to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Facilities that don't meet the standard may face civil penalties of $55,000.
The move has been in the works for several years. The Justice Department published standards for accessibility in 2010 and announced a March 2012 deadline for compliance. But confusion over the standards became so contentious that pool operators threatened coast-to-coast pool closures last spring, a scare dubbed "Poolmagedden."
In response to the uproar, the Department of Justice moved the deadline to Jan. 31, sought to clarify the rule and grandfathered in some equipment that was purchased by pool operators during the debacle. The Justice Department also reiterated that pool operators need to provide access to existing pools only if it is "readily achievable," meaning it does not involve significant difficulty or expense.
Advocates for the disabled say there is "no excuse" for public pools not to be accessible.
"They've had plenty of time" to find a suitable way to accommodate disabled swimmers, said Patrick Wojahn, a public policy analyst with the National Disability Rights Network. "It's time to make this happen so that people with disabilities don't have to go through another summer without being able to go swimming with their families."
The new rule applies to all public swimming pools, hotels, motels, health clubs, recreation centers, public country clubs and businesses. It also applies to community pools associated with private residential communities if the pool is made available to the public for rental or use.
Hotel industry officials say they have not conducted surveys of hotel compliance but say all major hotel chains have made their pools accessible. They believe many smaller hotel and motels have also made the change or are exempted because the accessibility is not "readily achievable."
"We spent a year, really, educating our members on what the requirements are," said Marlene Colucci, executive vice president of public policy for the American Hotel & Lodging Association.
But Colucci believes that while the Justice Department rules solve one problem, they create another.
The chair lifts are an "attractive nuisance," Colucci said. "You have these very large machines, which are pool lifts, and children are naturally attracted to them," Colucci said. Many hotels have removed swimming pool diving boards because they were dangerous, she said, and now they are concerned about the safety of the chair lifts.
"If there's an injury that happens as a result, there's really no protection from liability, whether you're a hotel owner or the owner of a public pool," she said.
Wojahn dismisses those concerns.
"These lifts have been put in pools all across the country and never has there been any (documented) incident of any child injuring (himself) or herself in a swimming pool," he said. "These are no more dangerous than a diving board or the ladder that you already see that are fixtures in swimming pools."
According to the Justice Department, the ADA allows businesses to consider "legitimate safety requirements" in determining whether an action is readily achievable but cannot base a decision "on speculation or unsubstantiated generalizations about safety concerns or risks."