Swimming Lesson Dilemma

Kerry Fender by Kerry Fender Additional Needs

Kerry Fender

Kerry Fender

Down’s Syndrome, my family and me – one mum’s account of family life with an extra chromosome.

It strikes me that it would be a good form of exercise for him, bearing in mind his hypermobility, as his weight would be supported by the water, so there would be less strain on his joints.

It’s also a fun and relaxing pastime, and, last but most certainly not least, it’s a very important life skill.

But when it came to booking swimming lessons for him, I faced a dilemma.

Should I enrol him in an ordinary, public swimming class alongside other, typically-developing children, or look for something more specialised?

There is lots of evidence to show that children with Down’s Syndrome do best when educated alongside their typically-developing peers.

With appropriate support many young people with Down’s Syndrome do indeed thrive in mainstream education, and in mainstream extra-curricular activities.

It’s what all parents aspire to for their children – that they will hold their own in ordinary life. In many support groups (particularly online ones) there’s even a certain amount of snobbery about it: any parent who even considers a specialist school or any activity aimed primarily at disabled children can find themselves implicitly accused of underestimating their child, or of letting them down, or not wanting the best for them.

Actually, it’s worse than snobbery, it’s a form of unconscious, unthinking, ableism.

Who exactly have these parents let down – their child, or ‘the side’?

It almost seems that some people, in the desire to make Down’s Syndrome acceptable to the ‘typical’ world, seek to deny the existence of anyone who doesn’t fit the image of DS they wish to portray.

We all want to see acceptance, but that acceptance will be meaningless if it does not include everyone, regardless of ability, or how close they can come to being like ‘typical’ people.

We will never change the way society views disabled people if we simply pander to existing ideas of how people ‘should be’.

In an ideal world, of course, mainstream life and education would accept and include everyone, and cater for their needs.

But we don’t live in an ideal world, and real-world mainstream life, with its one-size-to-fit-the-majority organization, is inaccessible or overwhelming for some.

Even with support, some people will struggle to reach their full potential if ‘mainstream’ is the only option.

But I digress (and I’m ranting again).

We didn’t take Freddie to the pool as a baby or toddler.

When he was born he had something called Transient Abnormal Myelopoesis – a rare sub-type of Acute Myeloid Leukaemia, fortunately usually self-limiting.

Oncologists aren’t big fans of public swimming pools for obvious reasons, so we were advised it would be best not to take him.

The condition resolved, thankfully, but he was school-age before we felt confident enough in his health to consider swimming lessons.

This meant that Freddie would have to start in a class of children all much younger than himself.

I didn’t think this would be a good thing for either his dignity or his self-esteem.

And I wasn’t convinced that an ordinary swimming class would be able to meet his needs.

I was afraid he might not get very much out of it. He might not even be safe.

Freddie undeniably has cognitive and physical developmental delays.

This is not me underestimating him, or believing the stereotype.

This me knowing my son and accepting him as he is.

He also has a very limited attention span, and is easily distracted – I’m not suggesting that is true of all people with Down’s Syndrome, because it isn’t, but it is true of Freddie the individual.

How would a conventional swimming class, with a group of children all requiring tuition and supervision, and the teacher standing on the side shouting instructions, work for him?

How would the instructor keep his attention?

Would he or she be able to get his attention in the first place?

Would he be able to process the instructions (especially as they would be delivered in not to him personally, but simply in the general direction of the group, and in a raised voice)?

I had my doubts.

I looked for dedicated ‘special needs’ swimming classes in my area, but found nothing.

Then one day Freddie’s school sent home a leaflet about a multi-sports club running at the local leisure centre.

As part of the club activities it offered a free hour in the pool for the children and their parents.

We took him along, and while we were there, raised the subject of ‘special needs’ swimming classes.

They didn’t know of any either, but one member of staff did offer one-to-one swimming lessons, and was already teaching a couple of children with additional needs.

Best of all, during these lessons she was always in the water with her pupil. It was expensive, but we signed him up.

Slowly but surely he began to make progress.

The look of puppyish glee on his face as he swam alongside his instructor made it worth every penny on its own.

But always there was always this little nagging voice in the back of my mind telling me that I was denying him his rightful chance to interact with his peers and participate in mainstream life, that I was underestimating him and holding him back.

It didn’t sound like my voice, but it was there.

During school holidays, Freddie’s swimming teacher holds her classes at a different pool.

Although Freddie is always a bit discombobulated during the holidays (although he likes not having to go to school, he doesn’t like the break in routine) he’s previously been OK with this change.

But last half-term, when we turned up for his lesson, there was also another class running in the pool at the same time, a group class, with its own instructor, WHO WAS VERY LOUD AND SHOUTY.

I had to resist the temptation to sit there with my hands over my ears, goodness knows, I thought, how Freddie felt about it.

It quickly became clear that he wasn’t coping at all.

He wouldn’t ‘listen’ to his own instructor (I daresay he’d just stopped processing and gone into shutdown mode), and he refused to even try to do a single thing she said.

In the end she brought him out of the water early, because he just wasn’t getting anything at all out of the lesson.

And as disheartening as it was to have his lesson cut short because he wasn’t co-operating, it did at least confirm to me that I had made the right decision.

I had not let him down or underestimated him at all.

It occurred to me that if I had insisted on enrolling him in an ordinary, public swimming class, then, rather than opening doors to mainstream life, I would actually have been limiting his opportunity for meaningful learning – because his particular needs would not have been met.

If I were to insist on placing him in situations where I know that he, as an individual, will not cope, or will not be able to process the information he needs to know (because it is not being delivered to him in the right way i.e. one that suits his learning profile), I would not be preparing him to take a place in the mainstream world.

No, I would be de facto excluding him from it in the long run, as he would be unable to adequately learn the things he needs to know in order to function there.

But if I allow him to take his time, and to be taught things in a way that makes the information accessible to his way of learning, then, even if it sets him apart sometimes in the short term, ultimately he will be more likely to be able to hold his own in the mainstream world, because he WILL have been given a fair and equal opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills that he needs.

At the end of the day, Freddie is not a poster-boy for someone else’s campaign, or the hook on which I hang my own pride and ambition.

He is a little boy who needs his mother to shut out all the background noise, and open her ears fully to him and his needs.

Postscript: This week Freddie’s swimming instructor told me that, now that he’s had some intensive one-to-one, she would like to start overlapping Freddie’s lesson with that of another boy that she teaches singly, so that they would get a chance to swim together (with her in the water beside them) for part of their respective lessons.

I was agreeable, and so was the other boy’s mum.

I am very much hoping that this will work, because if it does, then slowly, stroke by stroke, we’ll be creeping towards our ultimate goal – that of Freddie being able to go to the pool during an ordinary public session, and enjoy a sociable swim alongside everyone else.

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