Sue Susman was done with her swim and ready to get out of the water on a recent trip to Lasker Pool on the Upper West Side. Susman suffers from multiple sclerosis, and uses a lift to exit the pool. The device has a submergible seat attached to an arm that swings out over and into the pool, lifting the user out of the water and depositing them onto the deck.
But because the lift is battery operated, and the batteries are not stored in the device itself, and because lifeguards aren’t allowed to assist disabled swimmers out of the pool, a Parks Dept. employee must be summoned to retrieve the batteries and assist disabled swimmers when they’re ready to exit the pool.
“This results in waits of sometimes 10 or 20 minutes in cold water while the lifeguards find someone to walk over and tell the [Parks Dept.] staff that a swimmer needs to use the lift,” said Susman, who was forced to swim an additional 15 minutes beyond her normal workout in order to keep warm while waiting for assistance.
“I ended up unable to function at all that evening or the next day,” said Susman.
Because of her MS, Susman has limited quantities of energy and can only move normally for short periods of time. If she overexerts herself, she said, exhaustion sets in. On the day of her ordeal she went to bed at 2 p.m. and stayed in bed most of the next day.
Susman, a lawyer and longtime affordable housing advocate, said she’s had similar experiences going back years.
“At the Lasker Pool in Central Park, it’s happened almost every time until I filed a complaint with the [Parks Dept.],” she said. “Then the city parks people tended to come out more quickly - but not every time.”
And it’s not just Lasker Pool. At Gertrude Erdele pool, on 60th Street between West End Avenue and 10th Avenue, she’s had to wait around 10 minutes in the water for a lift operator on over a dozen occasions.
According to Chris Noel, accessibility coordinator for the Parks Dept., the agency has received complaints from disabled pool users about this very issue and are in the process of replacing their battery-operated lifts with hydraulic lifts from a different manufacturer.
“We’re moving away from the battery operated model to more of the hydraulic lifts,” said Noel, who noted the department hopes to have replaced battery-operated lifts in Manhattan pools with hydraulic lifts by next summer, which are actually cheaper and much easier to use.
Noel said federal disability law requires that public pools have two means of egress for swimmers with disabilities. At public pools in New York City, the primary means of egress are the battery-operated lifts, with the secondary being the use of a ramp and pool wheelchair. All 20 adult-sized pools in Manhattan are equipped with such measures, as well as every adult-sized pool in the outer boroughs. Battery-operated lifts in some outer-borough pools have even been replaced with hydraulic lifts, but so far, none in Manhattan.
As for the current system, Noel said if the lift batteries - which he characterized as “finicky” - are left on the lift they deplete quickly in the sun, which is why they’re typically left on chargers in a nearby office.
“It’s an inconvenience for our staff to have to go get the batteries every time a disabled person wants to get out of the pool, and it inconveniencing a lot of our disabled swimmers,” said Noel.
He also confirmed it’s pool policy to not involve lifeguards with assisting disabled people out of pools and that lifeguards at NYC pools are tasked only with the safety of swimmers.
“They’re just there to provide safety for the swimmers and that’s their main call of duty, not necessarily to assist any swimmers,” said Noel. “Their job is to make sure our pools are safe and they’re very good at that. And we’re fine with that. Helping a disabled person out of the pool can be a distraction. [Lifeguards] can’t ever take their eyes off the pool just in case something happens.”
Noel said the department gets maybe two complaints a summer from disabled people who have had to wait for the battery-operated lift, and that he’s gotten similar feedback when out visiting public pools. The department, he said, is being proactive about the problem.
“We’re looking forward. Even if we have only one or two complaints this summer, we might have more next year,” he said.
In the meantime, Susman said she received an apology from the pool manager at Lasker Pool for her most recent ordeal, and that at her request, lifeguards at the pool will be equipped with radios to communicate with Parks Dept. staff on when disabled users want to exit the pool.
Noel said the battery operated lifts will be used for spare parts as the hydraulic lifts are phased in.
“The batteries are actually very finicky so it’ll be good to have spare parts,” he said.