Tamsin Coates: Teaching deaf children how to swim

Posted on August 3, 2012

I am not a good swimmer and I’d always thought that when I eventually became a parent that I would like my children to learn to swim for safety reasons but also to encourage their confidence in water.

Fast forward several years to the prospect of attempting to try to teach my two profoundly deaf and sign dependant youngsters to swim. As they were so close in age and also going to need someone to hold them safely in the water while another adult signed to them, the whole task seemed completely impossible in practical terms.

At the time there were very few options in finding swimming lessons which would be suitable for the boys. In asking other parents of deaf children, who used the standard lessons which were available in our local area, most were extremely dissatisfied. Their children were being told off for not following instructions, which they hadn’t heard, there was a complete lack of deaf awareness and a resulting lack of progress in the children’s swimming abilities.

Time passed and then as so often happens, out of nowhere came a solution. A specialist teaching assistant, who provided sign support for children within the Hearing Resource Base which my sons attended, came to our local Deaf Children’s group with an idea. She had good levels of signing skills, was used to teaching deaf children and best of all in this case she was a qualified swimming instructor. She came to us offering to provide swimming lessons for our children if we could help to look for funding as we would have to pay for pool time.

The first lessons started with a small group of children, in one of our council’s most rundown swimming pools. The lady running the lessons brought her sons along to help support the children and another signing teaching assistant from the school added her skills to the pot. My sons thrived under her tuition. Well my eldest did very quickly while my younger son, who also has some co-ordination difficulties, spent a while managing the seemingly impossible task of not moving anywhere despite enthusiastic movements before finally taking off with amazing strokes.

As with everything associated with services for deaf children and adults there were inevitable frustrations; finding suitable pool space when the first pool got shut down, costs involved that we couldn’t find subsidies for locally even though these lessons were filling a vital gap. Yet through signposting of families to this invaluable resource the group grew and grew.

The small ad hoc group became Dolphin Sign and Swim Club, through which many deaf children have learned and become proficient in this important life skill. Through word of mouth with contacts ‘over the Mersey’ in Liverpool the lessons now also take place there weekly, and the club has received recognition as Community Project of the year (Gold level) from the ASA.

As the club grew more instructors have joined, those unfamiliar with sign have studied BSL courses and have developed deaf awareness through observation to teach the children. Lottery funding has helped to subsidise the costs for parents for a time and parents do fundraise to help keep lesson costs affordable. But it can be a struggle.

As parents we have been very lucky to have this resource, for our children, in our area. We are though reliant on the commitment of a small handful of people who do this on top of their everyday jobs and there is no guarantee for how long it will continue. The NDCS are highlighting the lack of similar services in most other areas. I hope their message is heard and more deaf children can be offered swimming lessons which, with small adjustments, can be made accessible for them and which will provide them with such valuable skills.

Tamsin Coates trained and worked as a Speech and Language Therapist for over 10 years. Her training came in useful when she had two sons who are profoundly deaf. She now juggles being a mum to three lively children, writing, running the Wirral Deaf Children’s Society (with her friend Lisa) and raising awareness regarding deaf issues wherever she can.

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