How do blind and visually impaired people go swimming?

After many discuntitledussions with my high school swimming teacher (and mustering up some courage), I finally decided to take swimming class during my senior year. It wasn’t that I thought I couldn’t swim because of my disability, but rather I had the same fear the average person has of sinking and drowning!! Being the only blind student in the class, I was unsure about how exactly I would keep up with my classmates. Luckily, my swimming teacher was very accommodating, and made sure my fears didn’t become a reality! She worked one-on-one with me and physically taught me how to do each movement before letting me practice on my own.

Like our sighted counterparts, blind and visually impaired individuals swim for pleasure, recreation and competition. There are many simple adaptations that allow us to enjoy this wonderful activity!

Some people wonder how those of us who are blind or have low vision manage to swim straight and stay in the lane. There are several methods we can use, and there is no one technique that works better than others.

Visually impaired swimmers can get tactile feedback from swim ropes, or lane markers. Beth Finke has been blind since she was 26 years-old. She swims several times a week for exercise, and finds lane markers very helpful. According to her memoir, “Long Time, No See,” Beth took a swimming class after losing her sight in hopes of learning to swim straight.

To learn to do the crawl more evenly and end up going straight, my teacher gave me hands-on instruction. He stood behind me at the edge of the pool, grabbed my arms and pulled them up in the air. “Reach up as far as you can,” he instructed, “then pull back toward your belly button.”

“And concentrate!” he yelled at me once I got into the pool. I pushed off the side, concentrated, and banged right into a lane-marker. I tried again, pushed off the side, and careened from one lane-marker to the other all the way down the lane and back. I was an underwater pinball. I needed that lane all to myself.

I never did learn to swim straight. I asked my teacher if it’d be all right if I tapped each lane marker with my hand just to keep my bearings. “It’ll slow down your stroke,” he warned, as though I actually cared about being speedy or competitive. But I let him keep coaching me to improve my stroke.

As a blind swimmer, I also find lane markers helpful, especially when I’m swimming by myself. Brightly colored lane markers can be of great help to swimmers with low vision as well.

Swimmers with little or no vision and who participate in sports or competition might prefer to use “tappers.” Simply put, this is a specially trained person who warns the swimmer of when he or she is near the end of the pool or needs to make a turn. They do this by “tapping” the swimmer with a long foam poll.

Other simple techniques can make swimming enjoyable. Counting the strokes from one end of the pool to the other helps swimmers slow down when they are approaching the end of the lane. Placing a beeping device, radio or brightly colored beach towel can also let swimmers know when they are near the end of the pool.

No matter what techniques you use, the important thing is to have fun swimming! How did Beth do in her swimming class? Again from her memoir:

I got an “A” in the class. I swim three times a week now, tapping the lane marker with my right hand on every other stroke.

Like Beth, I also got an “A”!  Swimming is one of my favorite recreational activities, especially during the summer!

You can find more tips and resources on swimming as a person with a visual impairment at: http://www.visionaware.org/info/everyday-living/recreation-and-leisure/sports-and-exercise/swimming-6126/1235. I also invite you to check out my friend Beth’s Safe and Sound Blog and read more about her many adventures at www.bethfinke.wordpress.com.

What other suggestions do you have for swimming as a person with vision loss? Please comment! You can also send questions related to blindness or visual impairment to sandysview@chicagolighthouse.org. Thanks for reading, and stay cool!

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5 thoughts on “How do blind and visually impaired people go swimming?

  1. Dear Sandy,

    I always enjoy reading your blog and since swimming is a topic I know something about, I thought I leave a comment.
    Swimming is my favourite sport, although I like tandem cycling and gym sessions too. I’m legally blind but still have some sight. My mum send me to a swimming class in kinder garden, but I only lost my fear of the water completely when I went for a summer holiday with my grandparents on the Mediterranean Sea. My granddad showed the movements to me and suddenly I knew how to do it. After a while he told me to turn around, because he couldn’t stand anymore and he wasn’t a good swimmer himself. That’s one of my favourite childhood memories.
    I love moving freely in the water, where I don’t have to worry about obstacles in my way. I use the black line in the middle of the pool and the bright lane markers. I don’t touch the markers, I just have to turn my head a bit more right and left than sighted swimmers to see them.
    As a teenager I used to compete in swimming competitions, but I never had a “tapper” in training sessions. It was a great time. I went to training camps, met interesting people and travelled around Germany, although I didn’t see much of the cities we went to.
    Now I go to the training sessions of the swimming team in college, but I don’t participate in the competitions, because I don’t have the time and I wouldn’t have a chance against most serious sighted swimmers. I tell the trainers straight away that I’m blind at the first session and most of them deal with the situation very well. In four years I had only one who kept putting up instructions on paper and left us to our own devices. That was frustrating, but I showed up every single week and asked the others what to do or did my own thing. However, I do better when someone stands at the edge of the pool to tell me what to do and to motivate me.
    I also love swimming in the sea. I find in and out of the water alright, but my problem is to find my towel again. I usually have to wonder up and down the beach, getting sunburned, until my friends or family spot me. Once I almost collided with a boat in the North Sea and my granny send the coast guards to rescue me. I think I would have had the strength to swim back to shore, but it would have been dangerous for a less experienced swimmer. It would be better to have someone I can follow, but most of my friends wouldn’t be able to swim one kilometre or more. The pool is definitely the safer option, but nothing compares to swimming in the sea. One of the things I want to do in life is to participate in a three kilometre swim in Galway bay along the Irish west coast.

    I look forward to reading your future posts
    best wishes
    Tina

    Like

    • Hi Tina, thanks for being a loyal reader and for sharing your experiences! Sounds like you love swimming!! You’re absolutely right — there’s a special kind of freedom you feel when swimming, a freedom that can sometimes be difficult for those of us with vision loss to feel. Good luck in your swimming adventures!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Tina Franziska Paulick and commented:
    This is a great post about how visually impaired and blind people can go swimming. Since I love swimming and Sandy’s View is a fantastic blog I have to share this with my readers. Additionally, I want to write more in English in the future, but I’ll keep my blog bilingual, so there will still be posts in German.

    Das ist ein toller Post über Schwimmen für blinde und sehbehinderte, den ich umbedingt teilen muss. Ich habe dort ein Kommentar hinterlassen, das fast schon ein Blogbeitrag zu meinen eigenen Schwimmerfahrungen ist. Außerdem will ich in Zukunft ohnehin auch auf Englisch schreiben. Es wird trotzdem weiter Beiträge in Deutsch geben.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for excerpting from my blog post, Sandy! And the comment above from Tina is right –nothing beats swimming in the ocean. We used to be at the Atlantic Ocean close to the end of the season when few other swimmers were around. I would put a big (“boom box” radio at the bottom of the stairs that went from our beach house to the sand, and after I was done playing in the ocean and would come out onto the beach I’d just listen for the music to find my way back. It was heaven!

    Liked by 1 person

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