SAVANNAH, Ga. — Owners and managers of swimming pools at hotels, city recreation centers and public parks are scrambling to install mechanical chair lifts to comply with new federal requirements that all public pools be accessible to disabled swimmers.
Some hotels fear the cost of the equipment or fines for noncompliance could put them out of business, and an industry lobbyist says others might close their pools this summer if they can’t upgrade in time, though the government can offer more time to those having trouble paying for it. Swimmers with disabilities say the changes are overdue.
“I couldn’t get into the pool without it,” said Karyn Kitchen of Savannah, who has multiple sclerosis and relies on a poolside chair lift at the Chatham County Aquatic Center for her physical therapy workouts up to four times a week.
Adding to the problem is a backlog of orders created by the rush to meet a May deadline.
Harry Spirides ordered lifts last month for the hotel he owns on Georgia’s largest public beach and was told they should arrive in late April. He expects to pay $12,000 for the lifts at the Ocean Plaza Beach Resort on Tybee Island.
“Our supplier is backed up with orders,” Spirides said. “Everybody’s rushing to comply; everybody wants to comply. But when you have tens of thousands of swimming pools that have to be retrofitted with these lifts, it takes time.”
Changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2010 say pools must be upgraded with chair lifts, essentially mini cranes that move wheelchair users into the water.
The initial deadline 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.
The law doesn’t affect private clubs or pools owned by neighborhood associations that aren’t open to the public.
It’s a massive and expensive undertaking. The Association of Pool and Spa Professionals says its 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 disabled swimmers.
After a car crash left Beth Kolbe unable to walk 12 years ago, she took up swimming and went on to compete in college and on the U.S. Paralympic team in 2008. Despite her athleticism, she needs a person’s help or a lift to access a pool.
Kolbe says when she visits pools, she usually takes a friend to avoid asking for help from lifeguards, who often seem uncomfortable lifting her.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to a pool and they have a lift but nobody knows how to use it – it’s in the corner and probably broken,” said Kolbe, a 26-year-old student at Stanford Law School in California.
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.
The government can give pools more time if they show financial hardship and have a plan to save up for the equipment.
Pool owners say they’re not opposed to making accessibility upgrades, but argue they need more time – especially after a clarification to the requirements in January.