Program development can be difficult in any setting, but attempting to make it inclusive can be especially challenging.
Inclusion implies that every individual — no matter one’s ability level — has the same choices and opportunities to participate. It suggests being accepted by peers and having opportunities to share experiences with people with similar interests.
Inclusive programs also imply an ability to access facilities in the community and to participate in programs. In developing an inclusive swim program, there are several ways to make it available to any child with a desire to participate.
Inclusive recreation and sports programs are in demand, especially during the summer. While most children are enjoying summer camp, hanging out with friends in the neighborhood, or competing in summer sports, children with disabilities are oftentimes limited to specially designed, segregated programs. These individuals typically do not have opportunities to accrue social benefits through participation alongside their peers without disabilities.
Along with the fun factor, water provides many physical benefits for swimmers, including decreased pressure on joints, increased muscle tone and mass from resistance, enhanced circulation and muscle relaxation. Water is also considered an excellent equalizer due to properties such as buoyancy and lift.
How To Make It Happen
First, it is important to develop a relationship with parents and determine what they want in a program for their children. Once their needs and wishes are known, share the vision with those in charge since they will be advocating for the program, helping to procure funding, and providing a firm foundation on which to build the program.
Once the foundation is complete, the next step is to hire coaches and support staff members who are willing to work with children of varying abilities.
It is equally important to provide the staff with disability training along with CPR and lifeguard certification. This includes a discussion of the needs, wishes and safety of the participants and family members, as well as best approaches to teach aquatic skills. Also, discuss the need for ongoing communication between staff members, and note that participants and their families can be a substantial source of information.
Although you cannot prepare the staff for every situation, a regularly scheduled meeting is prudent to address concerns and develop new strategies to support the program.
The Grinning Gators
In summer 2010, Green Valley Swim and Tennis in North Carolina had a vision to include children with disabilities in its program. With many parents looking for a swim-team option for their children, a non-competitive team was developed.
Through a combined effort between Green Valley Swim and Tennis and a grant project housed at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the program was piloted with a team of 40 participants, five of whom had a specified disability. Two coaches, an inclusion specialist and four volunteers implemented the program.
Staff members were asked to complete training sessions to discuss:
1. Common disabilities among children
2. Ways to adapt the program
3. The need for an open mind and some flexibility in the way they designed and implemented the program.
The one-hour inclusive program met twice a week. The team was divided into two age groups to provide more age-appropriate exercises. Each age group was then divided into two sub-groups by skill level. Each sub-group had a minimum of two coaches/volunteers.
A variety of equipment was used, including kickboards, pool noodles, dive toys and swim-through rings to encourage skill development, socialization and fun.
At the beginning of each practice, the coaches discussed daily plans and listed the activities on a dry-erase board to encourage successful transitions.
At summer’s end, a “fun meet” was held to showcase the swimmers’ new skills.
While inclusion is possible in any setting, it does take a good deal of desire and effort by staff members; however, the benefits outweigh the costs.
Providing children with opportunities to take part in an inclusive program enables them to grow and learn as people. And these programs have the potential for financial gains and expanded job opportunities.
So take a chance, make a difference, and become inclusive!
Gabrielle Hukill is an inclusion facilitator and graduate assistant in the Department of Recreation, Tourism, and Hospitality Management at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Frannie Varker is the pool manager for Green Valley Swim and Tennis in Greensboro, N.C.
Stuart J. Schleien, Ph.D., LRT/CPRP, is professor and director of the Graduate Study Department of Recreation, Tourism, and Hospitality Management at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.