Local swimming pools prepare for upcoming disability rules

achristnovich@beaufortgazette.comApril 14, 2012 

It's difficult to detect frustration in Bart Brophy's voice when he says, "I want to go swimming."

But the frustration is there, he says. His tone is only casual after years of battling slow-moving bureaucracies and businesses to obtain rights like wheelchair access on beaches or better transportation services from hotels.

"It's always a slow ride for people with disabilities," he said. "We seem to always be the last ones when it comes to a lot of civil rights."

Brophy, who has used a wheelchair for 30 years, has been keeping an eye on whether Beaufort County's public pools are progressing with upcoming federal Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines to become more handicapped-accessible by May 21.

The pools must have installed at least one ramp or a mechanical lift to help disabled swimmers get in and out of the water; otherwise, they could face lawsuits if they can't prove an effort has been made to follow the guidelines.

Brophy said he's often been unable to use swimming pools at hotels and recreation facilities.

"I'm sure a lot of people didn't even know (new rules were) happening," Brophy said.

The deadline to comply was March 15, but a 60-day extension was issued by the department after hotel and water-park advocacy groups complained that the revisions were too confusing.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, which is responsible for writing and enforcing the guidelines, the main requirements for public facilities are that:

  • Pools and hot tubs with a perimeter of less than 300 feet have at least one ramp or mechanical lift.

  • Pools and hot tubs with a perimeter of more than 300 feet have two types of access, one of which must be a ramp or lift.

  • A permanent lift or ramp must be added for each pool and hot tub if it is clear that installation would be affordable and feasible. The American Hotel and Lodging Association, a national organization with more than 11,000 members, says that guidelines on whether a permanent or portable lift is required are confusing, leaving pools open to litigation if a customer complains about access.

  • "In 2010, we had the understanding that lifts could be portable," the group's vice president of policy, Marlene Colucci, said. "Some already went out and bought them with the understanding that portable lifts were OK, and now that might not be the case."

    The group sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice in late February that said the revisions were made without first consulting businesses.

    "The Department has not explained why a lift that is promptly brought out upon request would not ensure equal access while balancing the legitimate interests of other users," the letter said.

    In Beaufort County, hotels, recreation facilities and county-run pools seem to be opting for lifts, whether permanent or portable.

    Beaufort County is in charge of four public pools. Its pools at M.C. Riley Elementary, Battery Creek High and Beaufort High schools have always had portable lifts, director of community services Morris Campbell said, adding that the pools will comply with the new rules.

    The county's outdoor Charles Lind Brown pool in Beaufort doesn't have handicapped access yet, but Campbell said a $2,000 lift is in the budget request for the upcoming fiscal year.

    The Island Recreation Center on Hilton Head Island has had lifts since 1988, according to executive director Frank Soule, but it bought another $6,000 portable one in early March to be ready for the new guidelines.

    A general manager for a Red Roof Inn on Hilton Head said permanent lifts will be installed as part of a corporate-wide policy change.

    "We've been told they can't be portable," the manager said. "At first, they said it was OK ... but now they're required to be there all the time."

    The Crowne Plaza on Hilton Head has had a portable lift for several years, according to chief engineer Kevin Wamsley. It is kept in storage until requested by a customer.

    "We've had it for several years," he said. "We are pricing new (permanent) ones, which cost between $4,000 and $6,000, not including installation."

    Staff at the Westin on Hilton Head and the Inn at Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton have both said that they've ordered lifts.

    Brophy said he doesn't care if a lift is portable or not. An argument over semantics, he said, can only further delay the guidelines from being enacted.

    Pool owners "could solve this themselves," he said. "They just have to think about if their own cousin wanted to get in the pool and couldn't -- how would you solve that problem?"

    After the rules take effect, Brophy said he plans to do his best to make sure pools comply.

    "I know how to file a (complaint) to the department," he said.

    Follow Anne Christnovich on Twitter at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.

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