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Benefits of Swimming for Students with Disabilities: Part of the Special Education Program

written by: Anne Vize • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 10/28/2013

Teaching kids with special needs in the classroom is the easy part, but if you confine yourself to the classroom setting you are missing out on the fun and skills that can be gained by everyone enjoying the pool! Swimming is a useful addition to the PE program for all students.

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    The Benefits of Swimming for Students with Disabilities

    Benefits of Swimming for Students with Disabilities Swimming programs bring with them a range of benefits for students, depending on how the program is implemented and the particular needs of each student involved. The benefits can include areas such as:

    • Increased aerobic fitness
    • Increased muscle strength
    • Increased muscle endurance
    • Increased flexibility
    • Greater skills at performing transfers (eg. from wheelchair to pool)
    • Improved communication skills
    • Decreased extraneous movements and improved relaxation
    • Greater self-control
    • Improved behavioral outcomes

    As a teacher of swimming, it is important to consider your program planning from both a group and individual point of view. Plan your activities so they can meet the needs of all students, and allow sufficient time for dressing and transfers.

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    Adaptive Equipment in Swimming

    There are several schools of thought when it comes to using aids and adaptive equipment in a swimming or aquatics program with students with special needs. Some people feel it is more beneficial for students to feel and develop body control in the water without the use of any aids or equipment. They believe aids such as life jackets and flotation devices make it harder for a student to gain personal body control and learn to manage their movements in the water.

    There is another school of thought which says that particularly with students with physical disabilities who are older and often heavy to manage, that there is a health and safety benefit for workers in using equipment in the water. Some students are hard to hold (e.g. students with cerebral palsy can tend to have many extraneous movements which make their bodies more prone to rotating or slipping out of your hands when you are working with them). Inexperienced volunteers or aides often also find it easier (and safer!) to have the back up of a flotation device when working with a student with a physical disability as they get more used to their body movements.

    Some students too, seem to gain great pleasure from the independent movement they obtain from moving in a flotation device without the help of anyone else. For some students, this is the only time in their week that they are able to move from one place to another without someone else taking them there. Imagine the pleasure and sense of independence that brings to a student with a severe or multiple disability!

    Some common aids used in swimming include:

    • Life jackets
    • Swim rings
    • Arm bands (try these under a foot as well!)
    • Pool noodles
    • Back pack style floats
    • Floating mats

    Consult with your aquatic trainer or relevant aquatic organization such as Autism in Australia to find out which aids and support techniques are likely to be appropriate for your situation.

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    A Word on Safety in the Pool

    A final word on safety, Before you embark on your swimming program, ensure that you have the following in place:

    1. A good ratio of staff to students (remember to have a 'spotter' for any students with epilepsy)
    2. Careful planning
    3. A practiced and documented emergency plan
    4. Warm, clean water
    5. A safe entry and exit method
    6. Good leadership
    7. Volunteers and aides who follow direction well
    8. Good, well maintained equipment which is checked before each session
    9. Trained, qualified swimming teachers
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    Teaching on Water Safety

    It is all too easy to perceive students with significant levels of disability as being passive recipients of our teaching programs, rather than as active and involved learners. One way to combat this perception issue is to focus upon the teaching of water safety knowledge and skills to students with disabilities. By focusing upon skills such as:

    • Safe entry and exit
    • Assessment of risk to self and others
    • Swimming in safe locations and with appropriate support and assistance
    • Safety around other water environments such as lakes and rivers
    • Being aware of rescue strategies such as calling for help, throwing a rescue aide, using a phone to call for assistance or pointing to a specific location in the water

    We can support and encourage students to become more aware of how their pool based skills can apply to more complex and varied aquatic environments.