Improving swimming pool access and activities for the handicapped? Not so difficult!

Koen Van Landeghem, French Handisport swimming team trainer, shares with us his 30 years’ experience in the field of sports for the handicapped.

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So everyone can benefit from pools, it is essential to adapt infrastructures and pool activities to make them accessible the handicapped. Public authorities and private pool owners can find this a problem and inevitably many do not know how and where to start. These problems go beyond the pool regulations in force and need to be looked at differently. We discussed ideas with French Handisport swimming team trainer Koen Van Landeghem and got the benefit of his 30 years’ experience in the field of sports for the handicapped.

Koen Van Landeghem working with handicapped teenagers

Making public swimming pools more accessible to handicapped people requires common sense

Public authorities can be reassured! Adapting buildings is not very complicated. “Public authorities tend to make mountains of the problem, but the costs are not exorbitant. It’s just a question of common sense in the choice of equipment and securing the pools.”

For example, the installation of non-chromed handrails in the corridors leading from the locker rooms to the pool, the showers and sanitary facilities and, to avoid scalds, in saunas and Turkish baths. PRM (People with Reduced Mobility) locker room cabins must be sufficiently roomy to house the wheelchair of the handicapped person, the swimming pool chair and a possible helper. A criterion which, underlines Mr. Van Landeghem, architects seldom take into account. Even if the floor space exists, the doorways are often not big enough and make maneuvering and movement difficult!

Special swimming pool wheelchairs are a crucial point in accessibility in pools likely to receive handicapped people. “Today, most pools have one, but either it is stored in an inaccessible place, under lock and key and difficult to get at, or badly maintained, with under-inflated and even flat tires when the time comes to use it. Wheelchair choice is not always judicious, with a textile structure difficult to disinfect in the event of an incident, or unsuited to use by seriously handicapped people or children”. And yet high-performance equipment exists!

“Lastly, we must not forget that the number of handicapped people is on the increase. What we do for the few today will benefit greater numbers tomorrow!” Koen Van Landeghem explains. Indeed, these installations make it easier and safer for seniors, people with long-term diseases for whom it is often recommended to practice physical activities and adapted water sports and more widely for everyone suffering from a specific problem like a sprain, lumbago or a leg in plaster!

Finally, the main thing to watch out for is not where you expect, says Mr. Van Landeghem: “In practice, we have much more "boo-boos" occuring before or after getting into the water than major injuries. Minor injuries can happen in the locker room, getting out of the shower or on the way to the toilets because of slippery floors or obstacles that seem harmless to others. To take a very concrete example, one of the people I train cut himself (as his skin was weakened by spending a long time in the water) when he sat down on a much too narrow, ill-adapted bench. He did not realize he had injured himself because of his handicap (a loss of sensitivity). The cut turned into a serious hemorrhage. Public authorities must make sure that all risks are eliminated before opening! And for this reason, they must consult handicapped customers or experts! Better than anyone else they understand the difficulties with which the handicapped are confronted every day of their lives even if at first sight everything seems to comply with standards and pool regulations.” What he is saying is that you have to think deeply about the regulations in force regarding public swimming pools safety.

« We must not forget that the number of handicapped people is on the increase. What we do for the few today will benefit greater numbers tomorrow! »

Some adjustments to envisage for in-water activities

All handicapped people can do all in-water activities. What requires great care is getting them in and out of the water. “Take the example of water polo”, says Mr. Van Landeghem. “As the players cannot stand up, they play sitting down! It is the creativity of the leader or the sports teacher which will open the pool to sports which appear impossible. You can get together a bunch of engineers for hours to design a technical center or a new pool, and, of course, that’s essential, but for daily use common sense probably does it better – and is less expensive!”

For aquabikes, public authorities can install fixture points to help people who have difficulty in positioning their legs. Aquagym is possible with floatation belts. Just like adaptations of buildings, these fun sports facilities (see some other ideas here) can be used by all!

Try 4 public pool activities that can attract more customers

Labels rewarding accessibility for the handicapped: a new opportunity for private pools

The “Tourism & Handicap” (2001) label and the “Destination for all” (2013) label are French distinctions for tourist establishments meeting the specific needs of guests who suffer from hearing, mental, motor or visual handicaps.

As for any other label, they ensure that adapted establishments attract a new type of guests and grow their business.

“Being awarded these labels implies deep thought by applicants about accessibility and safety. S/C homes, for example, tend to forget that it is not enough to install an approach ramp up to a chalet or mobile home to facilitate access. It is essential to check that the dimensions of the building are adequate, with suitable circulation spaces. One can also choose to bring these constructions closer to the swimming pool to limit risky travel and, of course, to make the pool more accessible and safer for the handicapped. These initiatives are profitable and promote the development of tourism for this typology of local and foreign customers – a high demand” states Mr. Van Landeghem.

The 5-star Saint Hubert campsite (Pas-de-Calais French department), a good example to illustrate this business approach, has adopted a wide range of changes to adapt to the needs of the handicapped, with, in particular, the acquisition of a wheelchair with floating wheels for putting guests into their outdoor and indoor pools.

Check out more on this subject with Hexagone Manufacture's interview!

Why not improve accessibility for the handicapped when restoring your public pool? Check out our guide to the ways to promote it while under construction!

Our thanks to Koen Van Landeghem for sharing his expertise.

© Photo credits: Grégory Picout 

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