Essential Framework for Adaptive Aquatics

October 5, 2017, Department, by Rebecca Barley, Ivy Hausknecht and Alyse Whiting

2017 October Operations Adaptive Aquatics 410

Adaptive Aquatics consists of architectural and programmatic modifications to provide services for individuals with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) outlines what these modifications are. It’s up to recreation professionals to implement them in each facility.

ADA Architectural Standards

Architectural specifications are outlined in the ADA to remove barriers that limit physical access to all areas of your facility. Some of these specifications include accessible entrances to the building, hand-railing height, door width, pool entrances and lifts. Accessible pool features must be maintained in operable, working condition so people with disabilities have access to the pool whenever the pool is open to the public. For example, a portable pool lift may be stored when the pool is closed, but it must be at poolside and fully operational during all open pool hours.

Pool Temperatures

The temperature of the pool can be a factor in the success of your adaptive lessons. In most cases, the ideal pool temperature for teaching people with disabilities is 89 degrees. This temperature helps with circulation, attention spans and comfort. It may be difficult to keep recreation pools at 89 degrees, so even keeping it at 86 degrees can still be beneficial. However, there are a few exceptions; for example, for people who have Multiple Sclerosis (MS), heat can exacerbate their symptoms. An ideal pool temperature for people suffering with MS is 78–83 degrees.

Program Modifications

Title II of the ADA details says, “State and local governments may not refuse to allow a person with a disability to participate in a service, program, or activity simply because the person has a disability.” Therefore, it is our job to provide modifications to these patrons so they can enjoy our services and activities in the same way as every other community member. Always try to find a modification. Remember, equivalent isn’t everybody getting the same thing: equivalent is everybody getting what they need to be successful.

Reasonable modifications could include:

  • Allowing a caregiver in for free
  • Allowing an individual to come in during non-open-swim time if they have sensory sensitivities associated with loud noises, play features or crowds
  • Allowing a family member or caregiver to assist during a lesson
  • Allowing a participant to join a younger age group that is more at his or her functional level
  • Allowing a participant to use non-coast guard-approved floatation devices to increase functional ability in the pool
  • Providing training to staff on how to assist swimmers with special needs

Modifications don’t necessarily have to cost money. Simple modifications can be immensely beneficial.

The ADA also says, “State and local governments must provide programs and services in an integrated setting, unless separate or different measures are necessary to ensure equal opportunity.” What does this mean for adaptive aquatics? It means that we need to provide inclusive services as well as special recreation.


Inclusion is just as it sounds: including people with disabilities in mainstream programs with their peers. This may require you to add a paid staff member or an interpreter in the lesson to ensure success for the participant. Remember, Title II of ADA Law says providers “may not place special charges on individuals with disabilities to cover the costs of measures necessary to ensure nondiscriminatory treatment.” You’ll need to find room in your budget to provide for the extra staffing. Sometimes the modification can be met by providing training to your existing staff on how to work with individuals with disabilities. Working with parents and caregivers can also be helpful in knowing how to best serve the participant.

Special Recreation

When inclusion is not possible or an appropriate fit, providing special recreation programming is an option. These programs are designed specifically for individuals with disabilities and may use different equipment and/or rule changes, and have peers of equal abilities in the activity. At Salt Lake County Parks & Recreation, we have our Otters Swim Club, which is a group-lesson program for children ages 3–18 who have intellectual disabilities. Our Adaptive Swim Club is a swim team for all abilities, including physical, intellectual and developmental disabilities. Adaptive Swim Club is designed to be equivalent to a Masters Swim Team.


When deciding if inclusion or a special recreation program is best for a participant, you can conduct an assessment. An assessment will ideally be conducted by a coordinator or instructor. The instructor should look for three specific areas when determining program placement: swimming level, behavioral concerns and physical needs. When looking for behavioral concerns, watch for the participant’s ability to follow directions, stay with a group and any aggression and/or trigger behaviors. Physical characteristics to watch for are communication barriers, visual or hearing impairments and mobility. Prior to the assessment, create a written questionnaire for parents to fill out to obtain the answers to many of these questions. This questionnaire is useful to create consistency when there may be different instructors working with the participant.

Best Practices

Teaching someone with a disability how to swim can be fun and rewarding  —  you must remember to be patient with yourself and your student. Participants with disabilities can accomplish the skills you are teaching, but they may require more time to achieve those skills, and it may require you to come up with modified and creative teaching plans. It’s common for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to have a harder time paying attention for a full lesson, especially swimmers with ADHD or similar symptoms. Shorten lessons to fit their attention span or take play breaks often. Use toys and equipment, and make things fun and interesting. Students feed off the energy and attitude of the instructor.

Individuals who have disabilities are part of our communities and can greatly benefit from adaptive aquatic programs. By following ADA standards and using creative thinking to provide modifications, you will be able to successfully provide services for all members of your community.

Rebecca Barley and Ivy Hausknecht are the Adaptive Aquatic Managers for Salt Lake County Parks & Recreation. Alyse Whiting is the Adaptive Recreation Coordinator for Salt Lake County Parks & Recreation.