By Holly Bonner
An instant solution for beating the summer heat is to take a relaxing dip in the pool, but strangely enough many people often wonder if the blind and visually impaired community can participate in different water activities. Swimming is an excellent sport for individuals with vision loss because it can be enjoyed by all ages and be adapted for various levels of physical fitness. So, let’s “pool” our resources and explore how both blind children and adults can enjoy the water with proper instruction.
Introducing Blind & Visually Impaired Children to the Pool:
For blind children, starting early is key to ensure they learn the proper safety techniques to enjoy a lifetime of water fun! First, look for a swim instructor or local community center who has experience working with a variety of disabled children in the pool. Discuss any pertinent information about your child, including previous water experience, aspects of their personality with regards to learning, and any medical concerns. Parents should be confident the teacher can provide a nurturing environment and take the necessary precautions needed to make each lesson a positive experience. Prior to the beginning of the first class, make sure all pathways and walkways leading up to the entrance of the pool are clear from any potential tripping hazards. The same standards should be implemented for locker rooms and changing areas. If the instructor relies on any type of pool toys or equipment, encourage he/she keep these items in the same place each lesson to provide better continuity and organization for the blind child.
Before the Lesson:
Make sure both you and your swim instructor set clear expectations prior to the first lesson. You’ll want to know where to bring your child and have a clear understanding of any pool-related rules for the facility. All children should be taken on a tour of the pool area. Be sure to point out entry points, exit points, ladders, and diving boards. Describe any background noise and assess the brightness of the facility. Tinted googles can be helpful to kids who find the pool environment too bright. If possible, have your child interact with other staff including any lifeguards who may be on duty. This will help reinforce their comfort level and ensure the pool staff is aware your blind or visually impaired child is on site.
During Pool Time:
Once your little one is in the water, remember while the instructor knows their way around the pool, you, as the parent, know the most about your kid. Hang back for the first few lessons but be close enough to watch what’s happening during the teaching process. You want your son or daughter to build a relationship with their instructor, but you also want to make sure their physical and emotional needs are being met in a way that speaks to the parameters of their visual impairment.
Remind your instructor about the importance of verbally alerting children “before” they physically touch or guide them to the next activity. Combining this method with other verbal cues and tactile prompting will help drive home the focus of that day’s lesson. If floatation equipment will be used, make sure the student gets to feel and explore it before its implementation. Finally, encourage the use of brightly colored objects that provide good contrast against the pool color if your child has any residual vision.
After the Lesson:
After each lesson, be sure to speak to the child and the instructor separately to get both their perspectives on how the swim classes are progressing. You want to find out what your blind or visually impaired child likes or doesn’t like about the class and answer any questions they may have pertaining to its instruction. Remember, you are laying the foundation for your child’s relationship with the water. Make sure these first experiences are positive ones.
Blind & Visually Impaired Adults and Swim Safety:
Blind and visually impaired adults will also enjoy the physical and relaxation benefits of pool time. Lap swimming can be adapted by using lane markers or floatation devices, (colorful ropes and buoys) that help guide blind swimmers into their respective lane and maintain orientation. If these devices are unavailable, swimmers may simply count the number of strokes it takes to cover the length of the pool. By doing so, you can slow down as you reach the end of your assigned lane. Another tip is to place a brightly colored beach towel at the end of each lane for a visual marker if the swimmer has any residual vision.
Swimming in open water requires a different, if not more proactive, set of precautions. For safety reasons, blind or visually impaired swimmers should strongly consider swimming with a partner or group in the ocean. If there are absolutely no boundaries to provide the blind swimmer with a distinctive line of direction, a sighted partner is a must. Alert lifeguards and beach patrol prior to attempting to swim alone. In addition, pay attention to auditory indicators like the sounds of music, people talking or the sounds of flags in the wind to help direct you back towards land in the event you become disoriented.
Looking to swim competitively? You may want to seek out the help of a “tapper.” Tappers are experienced sport guides who are trained to observe a blind or visually impaired swimmer’s strokes. They then “tap” the swimmer with a long, foam tipped pole. By tapping, the swimmer is alerted to the lane ending and the need to make a turn. Experienced “tappers” synchronize their tap with the swimmer’s stroke movements. This maintains momentum, enabling the blind or visually impaired swimmer to keep their top speed without fear of collision. Usually two swim tappers are positioned at either end of a pool.
Do you have other suggestions for swimming as a child or adult living vision loss? We’d love to hear and share your tips and experiences in future 20/20 blog posts! Blog@LowVisionMD.org