Charlie Swinbourne: 5 reasons why swimming is a great sport for deaf people

Posted on September 9, 2014



A few minutes ago, we posted the news that the NDCS has received £160,000 funding from Sport England to run a project to include young deaf people in inclusive swimming programmes.

Which gives me a great reason to write this article. I love swimming, and recently, I’ve rediscovered it.

Swimming was a big part of my childhood. My deaf father was always taking me and my two brothers swimming at the weekend, and then we moved to a house just around the corner from an open-air swimming pool (which was heated, fortunately!).

After many years out of the pool, I now live 10 minutes walk from a pool and this year, I’ve started to go swimming for fitness – and to get out of the house when I’m working from home!

I’ve also realised that there’s some advantages to swimming from a deaf point of view. Without further ado, here’s five reasons why swimming’s a great sport for deaf people.

1) You can’t hear – but no-one else can either

The beauty of swimming is that people don’t expect anyone else in the pool to hear them – whether they’re deaf or not. This is because of all the water that’s clogging up everyone’s ears.

So if someone’s overtaking you while you’re swimming a length, they don’t try to give you a verbal warning, because they know you probably wouldn’t hear them. They have to navigate their way past you sensibly, when there’s a good gap.

This isn’t true of cycling, for example, when a deaf person could well miss a verbal instruction to let someone past.

I also don’t worry that a lifeguard’s trying to get my attention, or that I haven’t heard any announcements on the tannoy, because quite a lot of other people would miss it too.

For me, the fact people don’t expect anyone to hear anything in the pool makes me relax while I’m ploughing through the water, knowing that I wouldn’t be singled out (or assumed to be ignoring someone) if I miss something.

2) There’s no obligation to chat while you’re swimming

This is a strange one, because deaf people are social animals and like anyone else, we want to chat and get to know people. What I’m getting at is that many of the activities we do for fitness involve an obligation to communicate while we’re doing them.

If we’re playing a team sport, for example, like football, you’re often expected to respond to verbal instructions. If you go running with other people, they’ll often try and have a chat at the same time, which can be a struggle if you need to lipread (and look ahead of you to see where you’re going).

But if you swim, no-one tries to have a chat. It’s impossible. So you’re left in peace to get on with what you’re doing.

3) When people do try and chat to you, they forgive you more quickly for struggling to understand them

What I’ve learned in the seven months I’ve been swimming is that people (at least Yorkshire folk) usually chat in the showers afterwards.

And what’s nice about that is that they’re much more willing to repeat themselves, or accept you completely misunderstanding what they’re saying, simply because you’ve just been in the water, and everyone’s still a bit deaf until all the water drains from their ears.

4) You can sign underwater, and above the water

This one applies less to when I’m swimming lengths (it’s pretty hard to sign as you pass someone) and more to when I’m in the pool with my kids.

They’ve got goggles now, and one way I’ve encouraged them to try putting their faces underwater is to ask them what I’m signing (nothing more complex than a number, you’ll be pleased to know!) underwater.

I can also have a good chat across the baby pool with my wife without struggling to hear her!

And if you’re a deaf scuba diver, then things get really fun. Then you can have massive long conversations beneath the waves about how quickly you’re allowed to swim to the surface without getting the bends, for example.

5) Quite a lot of people who swim are a bit deaf, anyway

This one being a positive point depends on how much you like hanging out with elderly people.

Personally, I like elderly folk. They’re friendly, they’ve got stories to tell. And they love swimming in local pools at lunchtime.

And, after a while I realised (obviously) that a lot of them are a bit deaf, too.

It’s nice not being the only deafie there.

Charlie Swinbourne is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist (Guardian, BBC Online) and award-winning scriptwriter. His short film The Kiss was shown at Bradford International Film Festival in March, and his comedy Four Deaf Yorkshiremen go to Blackpool can now be seen on the BSL Zone by clicking here.

The Limping Chicken is the UK’s deaf blogs and news website, and is the world’s 6th most popular disability blog. 

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