Serving Diverse and Special Populations at Your Aquatics Facility

September 1, 2016, Department, by Inés Palacios, Ph.D.

Diverse activities — open swim, laps, water polo and an exercise class — all taking place simultaneously keep the pool at the Palm Desert Aquatic Center in Palm Desert, California, busy.According to the Physical Activity Council’s 2016 Participant Report, all age groups see swimming as a future fitness activity. Individuals ages 25-35 rate swimming as their top interest among 10 different activities that include camping, bicycling, hiking, running, canoeing, backpacking, working with machines, working with weights or kayaking. Those ages 35-65+ rate swimming as their second favorite interest. Yet, many public swimming pools across the nation are underutilized. Pools are expensive to maintain, manage, staff and program, but there are revenue-generating strategies that could potentially resolve some of these issues.

A great majority of aquatic facilities offer learn-to-swim lessons and water safety programs that provide revenue. Interestingly, a recent industry report states that the top program addition aquatic facilities will plan to offer are special-needs programs. There is a need to serve this segment of the population and an opportunity for aquatic facilities to generate extra income. From working with returning soldiers to reduce post-traumatic stress, to helping people regain mobility, enhance arterial blood flow and strengthening muscles, water immersion has more far-reaching benefits for people than other physical activities. And, all these activities can be facilitated at your swimming pool.

The Great Equalizer

At a typical pool, horizontal lap swimmers, usually young and retired individuals that have the availability and flexibility to swim during the day, tend to take up most of the pool space and receive the most attention. These groups of people, coupled with swim teams, may crowd the pool and occupy large volumes of space in the facility. However, there is a solution that not only could increase income and reach a new revenue stream, but also could improve and maintain sustainability of your pool. It involves a broader audience that includes vertical swimmers who currently may not be served in your facility. This could include individuals with social/emotional, cognitive, physical and even sensory disabilities; individuals from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds such as from African-American and Latino/Hispanic communities, inner city, underserved population and at-risk youth; and those looking for a way to increase physical activity to lose weight or combat obesity, prevent or recover from injury, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress and those with certain medical conditions who may benefit from water immersion and swimming. Remember, the swimming pool is a great equalizer!

Dynamic Space

Imagine how dynamic the space will become once you open it to be shared simultaneously by more than one type of user, all participating in different activities. Dividing the pool into subsections may allow you to rent the space for different activities, all happening at the same time. In addition, you could target different groups and provide programming for them depending on their needs. 

Keep in mind that water immersion and swimming is a good tool that promotes balance and fall prevention. On land, balance activities may be challenging for some and even uncomfortable because of concerns about involuntary falls when exercising. Performing similar or the same exercises in water can promote the same benefits while providing individuals with stability and confidence. Another benefit of exercising in water is the promotion of bone density. Water can help attenuate bone resorption, enhance bone formation and increase bone mineral content. It has also been found that water immersion can have a positive effect on promoting nervous system health, reducing arthritis joint stress, preventing and lowering high blood pressure, and other particular health concerns.

Water immersion is also an important programming component for people with disabilities. These days, to be ADA-compliant, commercial pools are required to have lifts to help individuals with disabilities with access and egress. Consequently, your pool is already outfitted to offer programs for this demographic. However, you also need to think beyond pool access and provide other amenities, such as family dressing rooms, accessible parking and access ramps, that will offer ease of use to this population. You want to make sure they keep coming back for more. 

Aquatic professionals understand that building a base of users and providing them with interesting programming is critical in developing lifelong aquatic participants. Opening your facility to a variety of programs could potentially create higher participation and a more extensive base of regular participants ranging from infants to the elderly. 

Ultimately, it is important to engage everyone in the community and explore the many ways that diverse communities and special populations could be served, while generating new community aquatic initiatives and bringing new revenue to your facility.  

So we can all learn more from each other and from diverse communities and special populations, we would love your input on a survey. If you have a case study you’d like to submit, please complete our Aquatic Programming for Special Populations form. Yours could be one of the case studies featured during our session at the 2016 NRPA Annual Conference!

We will share the results of our survey and more information about how to program for diverse communities and special populations at our upcoming session titled, “Serving Diverse and Special Populations at Your Aquatics Facility.” Join us from 2:30 p.m.-3:45 p.m. Thursday, October 6, in room 230 to learn more. 



Inés Palacios, Director of Recreation at PlayCore and a member of the 2016 NRPA Annual Conference Program Committee — Special Populations section.