How (and Why) To Swim With a Disability

If you have a disability, can you still take up the hobby of swimming? 

This is one of many questions about managing disabilities we hear frequently – especially in summer months. In most cases, the answer is a resounding “YES!” And there are many reasons why swimming is one of the most rewarding hobbies a person with a disability can try. 



Benefits of Swimming With a Disability

When it comes to swimming, there’s no shortage of benefits – for ALL swimmers, disability or not! Here are some of the biggest perks of swimming when you have a disability:


    Swimming is often considered one of the very best forms of hydrotherapy, especially for those with physical or psychological disabilities. 

    With natural buoyancy, the water offers children and adults with disabilities a unique opportunity to experience “weightlessness.” The buoyancy gives swimmers the ability to float and stretch in ways that were perhaps more challenging on land, alleviating certain strains and pressures. 


    Not only is swimming therapeutic, but it also provides a strong sense of freedom. Depending on the disability, a swimming pool may be one of the best places for a person with a disability to experience independence, as they will likely be able to move more freely, possibly even without too much help. 


    The sport of swimming naturally brings out a swimmer’s competitive side. With a boosted sense of independence, swimmers with disabilities often experience increased self-confidence and determination as they strive to meet specific swimming goals and compete with their peers. 


    Swimming is a WONDERFUL physical activity, providing major health benefits to all participants. Swimming helps build muscle, stay in shape, and can even help increase mobility sometimes. Plus, it’s simply a fantastic mood-booster!


    Simply knowing how to remain calm in the water and swim to shore if necessary is a CRITICAL skill for all people to learn, whether they have a disability. 


    Last but not least, swimming offers people with disabilities great opportunities for social growth. Whether swimming with family, friends, or as a part of a swimming program or course, it’s the perfect chance to develop stronger interpersonal skills and communication strategies.

How to Ensure Swimming Success if You Have a Disability

Whether you have a disability or are supporting someone who does, there are some things you can do to set yourself up for a positive, successful swimming experience…


    No matter your level of disability, it’s always a good idea to check with your medical provider before you start a new sport or physical activity. Your specific disability will determine the degree to which you should (or can) take part in swimming activities.


    Work with your occupational therapist to come up with some clear boundaries for your swimming practice…and stick to them! It may tempt to push yourself beyond your limits too quickly. Unfortunately, that may only lead to frustration, disappointment, or even serious injury.


    Have you had negative swimming experiences in the past? Or is this your very first time in the water (outside of your bathtub)? 

    Although you may dream of trying out the backstroke or swimming the length of the pool, perhaps you’re not quite ready for that yet. Pace yourself! Start with something more manageable – simply getting comfortable in the water and doing some breathing exercises. As you felt comfortable, move onto leg drills and balance exercises.

    Just take it one step at a time.


    To make the most of your swimming practice, it’s CRUCIAL to keep your practice goal-oriented. Set small, specific goals you are confident you can achieve (considering your limits and challenges). That way, you can stay motivated and want to keep coming back for more!


    Before you jump into your neighborhood pool, take a moment to consider what equipment you may need to accommodate your disability effectively. 

    For many disabilities (like paraplegia) a simple pool lift provides a secure way to get in the water. If you have limited mobility, a pool access chair (a wheelchair designed precisely for transporting swimmers into the water) is a good option. For children, consider a safety vest or buoyant shoes (like Crocs) to help you stay afloat.

    Do you struggle with balance? Find yourself a disability-specific pool noodle, tube, or other flotation device. 


    To fully prepare yourself for the pool, spend some time reading up on some common swimming challenges for people who share your disability. 

    It’s also a good idea to do a thorough background check of the pool or club you hope to become involved with. Make sure the facility has (or allows) the special equipment you need for a safe swim. Some pool facilities even offer swimming resources and special training options for people with disabilities.


    There has been a steady increase in programs to provide aid and opportunities for swimmers with disabilities. Depending on the area you live in, you may be able to find such a program. 

    Check out the USA Swimming and iCan Shine websites to learn more about swimming programs for people with disabilities in your community.

    If you can’t find a swimming program in your area, consider getting involved and helping establish one yourself. If you have the capability and passion to take on such a task, it may be a wonderful opportunity for you to help others in your community.


    Patience is going to be crucial. Sure, I’m talking about patience with yourself (or the swimmer with the disability you are supporting). But I’m also talking about patience with all of the trainers, coaches, or pool facility operators who may not have the knowledge or experience needed to help you with your disability challenges. 

    Although we’re seeing an increasing number of efforts to provide disability aid, we still have a ways to go before such resources are standard.


    Finally, try to be positive. Be kind to yourself, and trust that you will be able to accomplish your goals with time. If you are providing assistance or support to a swimmer with a disability, do your best to be a cheerleader, providing lighthearted encouragement and regular positive feedback.

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