All Access Spa-ing

CHANCES ARE YOUR SPA ALREADY HAS SOME features that are accessible to persons with physical limitations. But what other barriers can you remove, and how can you capitalize on these investments? While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) imposes responsibilities on your business, it can also bring opportunities for profit and growth.

Market Basics

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 49.7 million Americans—almost 1 in 5—are disabled with an estimated disposable income of $175 billion. Contrary to popular belief, the disability community has an affluent segment willing to splurge on cruise cabins with balconies, posh restaurants, and pampering. Because disability is largely age-related, the greying of the baby boomers will greatly expand the market. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) estimates that four million Americans turn 50 each year, with many already experiencing some loss of hearing, vision, cognition, or mobility. Whether or not they see themselves as having a disability, they are likely to patronize businesses that meet their changing needs by offering better lighting, less ambient noise, and easier physical access. Spas especially stand to benefit as boomers resist the visible signs—and aches and pains—of aging.

ADA Compliance

American spas and health clubs, like other places of public accommodation, must meet provisions of Title III of the ADA. For facilities built after January 1992, this includes full compliance with ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG). As of July 2004, ADAAG has been fully revised, with a new chapter specifically on recreational facilities including pools and spas.

New York City's Mandarin Oriental Spa, which opened in November 2003, is a good example of a newer property with superior access. There is a roll-in shower in one of the treatment rooms as well as in the locker rooms. The steam room and sauna boast wide doors for easy access, the massage tables are hydraulic, and the 75-foot lap pool has a pool lift. Even the ultra-luxurious VIP Spa Suite is wheelchair accessible.

For pre-existing facilities, the ADA requires removal of physical barriers if "readily achievable." Otherwise, the facility must take alternate measures to make goods and services accessible, such as moving a class to a barrier-free space. Alterations must be accessible to the maximum extent feasible, although, as a rule, added costs for accessibility need not exceed 20 percent overall.

Tax incentives can help cover the cost of access improvements and pay for adaptive equipment, the production of print materials in alternate formats, and the provision of sign language interpreters. An "ADA Tax Incentives Packet" can be found at the Department of Justice's new "ADA Business Connection" website (, along with an excellent new online course, "Reaching Out to Customers with Disabilities."

Adaptive Equipment

The most essential piece of adaptive equipment is the hydraulic massage table. Fancier models can transform instantly for manicures and pedicures, facials, and more. Hydraulic wet treatment tables are also available, which not only allow for easy transfer, but also optimize body mechanics for the therapist and enhance therapeutic techniques.

Another useful device—required by ADAAG—is the pool lift, also suitable for Jacuzzis. Hydrotherapy tubs, too, are becoming accessible, one example being the Freedom Bath from Arjo, which has a sliding door. Even bathrobes are now adapted for wheelchair users—the Handi-Robe from Creative Designs simply slips over the head and tucks in around the sides while the Body Wrap, from JMT Group, is a cross between a robe and a large towel.

Specialized Programs

Offering wellness programs that speak to the needs of individuals with specific health issues can help attract a new clientele. At Canyon Ranch (Tucson, AZ), the Life Enhancement Center offers weeklong programs such as "Thriving with Arthritis" and "Healthy Heart" that combine education with medical evaluations, therapeutic treatments, and exercise. Day spas, such as the Circe Aveda Salon Spa (Alexandria, VA) can also offer lifestyle classes and workshops, as well as services geared to wheelchair users. Adaptive exercise programs, such as the "Seated Pilates" class at The Breakers Spa (Palm Beach, FL) are another good idea.

Marketing to Customers with Disabilities

An outreach to the mature and disability markets can be virtually cost-free if the message is integrated into your spa's website and brochures. Simply including a universal access symbol tells customers with disabilities they are welcome. Showing mature individuals in promotional material sends a similar message. On websites, full details on adaptive equipment and accessibility should be provided, making sure to include "accessible," "wheelchair," and "disability" as key words so that search engines can connect potential clients to your site. At present, few spa websites even mention accessibility. This is a serious oversight because the internet is a popular resource among people with disabilities.

Laurel Van Horn is research director at Open Doors Organization (ODO), a non-profit based in Chicago. Best known for its nationwide surveys on travel and hospitality, ODO helps businesses better serve and market to consumers with disabilities. With an MA in economics and a background in market research, Van Horn has specialized in accessible travel since 1987, working as a writer, educator, and consultant. To contact her, email [email protected] or visit