Abilities United Betty Wright Swim Center launches  program to train swim instructors how to teach children with disabilities swimming and water safety skills

During the second week of January, one of the coldest in California’s history, aquatics professionals and children with disabilities immersed themselves in the warm waters of the indoor Abilities United Betty Wright Swim Center pool for a pilot course in adapted aquatics to teach children with disabilities swimming and water safety skills. This course is part of a series that the Betty Wright Swim Center has launched last year, to train aquatic professionals how to cater to populations of different abilities.

The objective of the four-day course, “Skills for the Future: Using the Pool as a Classroom”, was to train swim teachers how to deliver effective swim instruction to children with disabilities, while also augmenting opportunities for the children’s development of skills that will benefit them throughout their lifetime. “As a society we have a collective responsibility to grant individuals of all abilities opportunities for learning and developing to their fullest potential. Water exercise can be ideal for children with several forms and degrees of disability to have fun, feel good, and acquire confidence along with life-saving skills”, says Rho Henry Olaisen, Abilities United Aquatics Director.

Experts in pediatrics, adapted aquatics – techniques that emphasize swimming skills modified or adapted to accommodate individual abilities– special education, and swimming instruction led classroom lectures and in-water practical sessions tailored to meet the needs of children who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), cerebral palsy, and Down syndrome. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention around 1 in 88 American children are diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, 1 in 303 as having cerebral palsy, and 1 of every 691 babies as being born with Down syndrome.

Trainees learned how to apply the most appropriate education methods for teaching water safety and swim skills to children with disabilities and how to modulate their approach and techniques to respond to each child’s individual needs. “I currently run the aquatics programs at the Highlands Recreation District, [in San Mateo]” – said Bryce Zuzack– “After attending this training I am excited to expand our programs and offer more adapted aquatic programs. We also plan on implementing new training techniques, learned in “Skills for the Future”, to better prepare our staff to effectively work with people within our adapted aquatic programs. “

The intensive training experience culminated in a splashing success: by Thursday, children who were hesitant to even get their feet wet on Monday were playing in the water with ease, comfortably socializing with the teachers, and one even said “I like swimming!” One family commented: “My wife and I have brought our kids to well known traditional swim centers in the Bay Area in the past that did not produce favorable results in the ability for our children to become self-sufficient swimmers. Our son learned more in four days here than over the past five years of swim lessons. I witnessed the instructors using specific techniques that he responded to immediately. The Betty Wright Swim Center has restored my hope and dream that our kids have a place where they can become self-sufficient in swimming!”

In the classroom, Kathryn Azevedo, Ph.D., with SNAP (Special Needs Aquatic Program) in Palo Alto, discussed the principles of hydrology and the role adapted aquatics plays in the continuum of care.  Janel Astor, M.A. Ed., with the Center for Developing Minds in Los Gatos, raised students’ awareness for the different needs of children with high- versus low-muscle tone (muscles that are either very stiff or very relaxed, thus impairing motion and posture control), varying energy levels and cognitive abilities, and underlined the crucial importance of visual instruments for communicating with children who have a diagnosis of autism. Allyson Hughes, M.A. ECSE and Manager of Milestones Preschool in the Abilities United Children’s Development Services, focused on “People-First Language”, which places “the person before the disability, and describes what a person has, not who a person is”2, and education models.

As they set to work with children in the water, trainees identified SMART goals for each child, tailored to his or her specific needs and based on parents’ input as well as the evidence-based best practices learned from the course instructors. Each child made progress in the SMART goals while having fun in a supportive yet motivating atmosphere. Kids advanced to a higher level of comfort in the water, learned to perform new drills – such as crossing a section of the pool autonomously – and improved their kicking or breathing control, while also practicing socialization and communication skills.

In the pool, Dori Maxon, PT, MEd, and founder of SNAP in Berkeley, led in-water practical instruction showing swim instructor trainees how to prepare the body to learn, achieve focus, use their imagination to design functional activities, and utilize teaching protocols and equipment to give kids optimal learning tools.  Jennifer Winter-Hatch, Recreation Program Manager of the Betty Wright Swim Center, guided trainees and children through group games, which were welcomed by everyone at the end of a demanding week.

Joanna Marsheck, MPT, and clinical supervisor at the Betty Wright Swim Center, facilitated group discussions at the end of each day. Trainees posed questions and exchanged ideas about their learning objectives, accomplishments, and new opportunities to optimize children’s time in the water.

At the end of the course, a panel moderated by Rho Henry Olaisen and composed of parents, community advocates, volunteers, and representatives of California Regional Centers (which provide specialized services for people with developmental disabilities), and top-tier swim schools offered their perspective on pressing issues such as the challenges families of children with disabilities sometimes face daily, the cost of healthcare, the general lack of accessibility, and the need for more programs that are truly inclusive. “Skills for the Future” contributed to raising awareness and building consensus toward developing and strengthening such programs.

The Abilities United Betty Wright Swim Center – which operates under a strategic plan whose goal is to become a national aquatic health and wellness leader by 2014 – recognizes the support it received from community partners in making this pilot training course a reality and extends special thanks to Parents Helping Parents, Hydro Institute, California Children’s Services, Special Needs Aquatic Program (SNAP), Human Kinetics, and CM Capital Foundation.

For more information on “Skills for the Future: Using the Pool as a Classroom”, see our pre-event press release and follow our Twitter feed #BWSC2013.

[1] Source: National Center on Health, Physical Activity, and Disability http://www.ncpad.org/223/1454/Aquatic~Therapy

[2] Source: Kathie Snow http://sda.doe.louisiana.gov/ResourceFiles/Resources/PFL10.pdf