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May 2004 Vol.6 No.5   Conference/Workshop Calendar

Aquatic Supervision For Individuals with Disabilities

May is often the time when aquatic instructors start preparing for summer activities. As part of their preparation, instructors should be aware water recreation for individuals with disabilities provides an excellent means for developing physical fitness, social skills, and increasing self-esteem that land activities cannot accomplish. Further, aquatics activities are a fun way to improve muscle strength, motor coordination, flexibility, cardiorespiratory endurance, and postural stability without putting undue pressure on the joints. Because the unique characteristics aquatics provide, there has been a continued trend to include more individuals with disabilities into the general community aquatic program. Aquatic instructors should be prepared to provide appropriate instruction while maintaining a safe environment for individuals with disabilities. This article will present safety guidelines, instructional strategies, and accessibility ideas to help instructors overcome these challenges.

Phillip Conaster
Adapted Section Editor



Adapted Aquatics

American Association for Active Lifestyles and Fitness

USA Swimming

International Swimming Hall of Fame

Aquatic Therapy

Aquatic Therapy & Rehabilitation Institute

American Red Cross

Speed Stacks

 Contribute Your Ideas
If you have ideas, comments, letters to share, or questions about particular topics, please email one of the following Adapted PE Section Editors:

Chris Stopka
Ph.D., U of Florida
Sue Tarr
Ph.D., U.Wis-River Falls
Phillip Conaster
Brent Hardin

Phi Epsilon Kappa

 Article #1

Aquatic instructors should pay attention to how individuals with disabilities are using the facility, taking into consideration what type of disabilities and the severity of the disabilities. Some disabilities are obvious, such as: if someone uses a wheelchair, wears orthopedic braces, or uses a cane or seeing eye dog while walking. Some conditions are not easily distinguishable such as, mental retardation, autism, blind, deaf, diabetes, or epilepsy and are often overlooked. However, aquatic instructors may identify some disabilities like mental retardation by observing poor body coordination for age, frequent stubbing, failure to stay on task, and/or to take more trials in learning basic swimming skill. Individuals with autism might be recognized by stereotypic behaviors such as: waving their hands in their faces, biting their arms, hitting themselves, making loud sounds, or wandering and "looking lost". For individuals that are blind, instructors may observe these individuals swaying their heads from side-to-side or holding onto someone's arm. Aquatic instructors may also observe individuals who are deaf, by their using sign language or those wearing special hearing devices. For individuals with diabetes or epilepsy, a medical ID bracelet may be viewed. In general, individuals with disabilities may have some type of visual, motor delay, perform lower on skill and fitness assessments and/or have social difficulties. Instructors can clue in on deviations for further inquiry.

After initial recognition of specific disabilities, aquatic instructors should approach the individual or their parent(s) and ask, if there is anything they can assist them with or what modification could be done to help accommodate their individual and unique needs. Instructors should present questions in a honest and sincere way. If questions are presented pleasantly, individual with disabilities or parent(s) may feel free to express their true feelings.

Communication between instructors and individuals with disabilities could save many hours of unnecessary changes in policies, practices, and facility modifications. For example, an individual who uses a wheelchair might have trouble transferring to the water. The instructor may assume a expensive lift is necessary, however, after talking with the individual, the instructor may learn that all is needed is a soft mat and a little physical assistance. Collaboration helps instructors focus on the exact needs and/or concerns of individuals with disabilities and may encounter and eliminate misconceptions that arise.

However, communicating with individual that have disabilities may be difficult. For example, if a individual has a hearing impairment, the instructor might try to instruct them to jump straight off the diving board and not from the side. Not being able to hear well, talking to them or using a whistle to obtain their attention, the individual jumps off the side of the board and may hit the pool deck. In this situation, where the individual with a disability is not in close proximity to the instructor, a buddy system could be utilized or a hand signaling system used. Matching together an individual who cannot hear with an individual who can hear or explaining to the class that if anyone's hand is up, that means students should stop what they are doing and look at the instructor are both effective ways to maintain class control and safety. Using the buddy system may also help prevent problems with individuals that are blind or have mental challenges by assisting them when trying to read and understand signs. In some situations, the instructor or buddy may need to physically hug these persons in order to keep them out of harms way.

When communicating with individuals who have disabilities, the instructors should (a) talk face-to-face with students, (b) use hand gestures or know basic sign language, (c) use physical demonstrations or manipulations, and (d) have pictures with written words explaining objectives. Further, instructors should, when communicating, ask for understanding of instruction and speak slower but in a normal voice and use shorter and simpler sentences. The environment should be well-lighted and back ground noises should be at a minimum. Further, individuals with disabilities should be guided around the aquatic area with verbal instructions on all objects, barriers, and hazards. A good mental and physical picture of the aquatic environment will allow individuals with disabilities to move more freely and safely in the facility.

Aquatic instructors should also share information with other coworkers about the individuals with disabilities who they instruct. Sharing ideas and strategies will help all instructors be better prepared for future encounters with individuals who have disabilities, as well as, encouraging instructors to instruct in a more open and inclusive style. Weekly or biweekly training sessions are a good way to relate new information to aquatic personal. Training sessions should include a hands-on application. For example, the sharing of ideas about lifting techniques (one-person, two-person front or side) may be beneficial; however, performing the lifts and assessing proper mechanics is more beneficial. Knowledge, support, and collaboration with coworkers will increase the chances for success of any aquatic programs.

Aquatic instructors should (a) make a list of all suggestions provided by individuals with disabilities who use the facility, other staff, parents, and outside community agencies and (b) looking for common themes within this information (e.g., problems, accomplishments, solutions).

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 Article #1 Cont'd

Instructors should also account for individuals with disabilities' social and functioning skills, experience, and willingness to participate. For instance, someone with muscular weakness may want to participate in a general aquatic lesson. In this situation, the instructor should (a) assess the individuals ability, (b) plan a strategy to accomplish their personal goals, (c) individualize instruction in a inclusive setting, and (d) reassess the approach for adjustments and modifications daily. Note: Instruction should be flexible i.e. - adapting skills, rules, and standards, allowing of choices in equipment and activities.

In some situations, instructors may need to recruit help for appropriate instruction. A typical inclusive setting would have with one instructor with (a) one individual with severe disabilities or (b) two individuals with mild disabilities and four to five non-disabled individuals. However, more individuals with disabilities could be included if the instructor has additional help. Sources of help could come from peers (buddy system) or recruit volunteers from the community (e.g., elderly, parents, siblings). Instructors may also find help in the local Special Olympics. Special Olympics offers swimming as a sporting event; thus, many Special Olympic athletes are usually very good swimmers and these athletes may be willing to assist with your instruction.

In some situations aquatic instructors may need to purchase equipment such as special lifts, shower wheelchairs, larger safety rule signs, pictures depicting dangerous areas, add railing on walls and stairs as well as removal of barriers on the floor, lower shower heads, and install ramps. Equipment could also be flotation devices to help support instruction. PFD's and other buoyant aids can help with mobility/population, fitness activities, and games. Often, assistive devices increase motivation and make the activity fun while providing safety. Although modifications maybe costly, the convenience of an accessibility facility and a safer instructional setting will probably be enjoyed by all patrons.

Individuals with disabilities often prefer water temperatures around 86 degrees. However, if water temperatures are too high the individual's energy could be sapped quickly. Warmer water also encourages bacteria growth; so, caution should be given to bodily cuts, peg-tubs, and immune deficiencies. On the other hand, cooler temperatures may cause hyperthermia. However, individuals with multiple sclerosis usually prefer cold water. Note: Individuals with disabilities have sensory systems and circulatory systems that may not work properly. For example, an individual could have a serious gash on his foot and not feel any pain and/or within minutes could become very cold yet not be shivering. Instructors will need to (a) inspect their body for wounds and provided appropriate care and (b) their skin temperature should be monitored frequently.

Instructors may also need to understand safety procedures for seizures. Individuals with cerebral palsy, mental retardation, autism, and diabetes are often prone to having seizures. There are several factors that could increase the likelihood of seizures such as, (a) rapid changes in body temperature, (b) the body becoming too hot or cold, (c) blows to the head, and (d) dehydration or poor nutrition. Instructor should make safety provision for these factors respectively - e.g., extending the warm-up time before activities; maintaining exercise if the body is cold or providing intermittent breaks or shade if the body becomes overheated; do not allow horseplay, running, keep pool decks dry, remove overhanging equipment; and provided gator-aid or juices for fluid loss and energy. If an individual does have a seizure instructors should (a) protect the individuals head, (b) time the seizure, (c) turn the victim on his side, and (d) monitor his breathing and circulation. A seizure that becomes life threatening is very rare; however, instructors should call call 911 if (a) establish this is the first known seizure the individual has experienced, (b) the individual is diabetic, (c) the seizure lasts for more than 5 minute, and (e) if the individual has multiple seizures without regaining consciousness. Note: After a individual has a seizure, he/she may sleep for several minutes before waking up.

Because of the rising number of individuals with diabetes and asthma, the instructor will need some simple guidelines to help assure safe practices. Diabetics should be encouraged to check their glucose levels several times during exercise, to have extra food available, and to eat a well balanced meal 30 minute before participation. Instructor may want to schedule the diabetics participation after morning breakfast or lunch. For individuals with asthma instructors should (a) provide an extra inhaler, (b) have a longer warm-up period, (c) have short rest periods, and (d) if pollen, dust, or mold counts are high, change the location of the activity. Note: Instructors should stop the exercise if the individual is coughing, wheezing, or having difficulty breathing.

With added knowledge and responsibilities, instructors who instruct individuals with disabilities, should seek additional training in (a) adapted aquatics, (b) first aid, and (d) lifeguard training. Individuals with disabilities often get themselves into dangerous situation because they (a) do not anticipate potential hazards and/or (b) do not understand common rules. Further, individuals with disabilities may be chronologically 15 years old but functioning as a 6 year old. They may also have heightened fears and misconceptions of reality which makes instruction more difficult. Instructors should always be trained and prepared to (a) rescue individuals with disabilities, (b) provided appropriate instruction, and (c) assure a safe facility.

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