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Thursday, April 20, 2017
Adaptive Aquatics
by Brendan Tedrick, MS 


Everyone should learn to swim; it is considered a life skill.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC 2014), “Every day, about ten people die from unintentional drowning. Of these, two are children aged 14 or younger. Drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death in the United States.”  Not only is it important to learn how to swim but to always swim in the presence of a lifeguard.

Teaching a child or an adult with a disability to swim can be very rewarding, both to the participant and the instructor. There are many different types of disabilities.  Person-first language is the most sensitive way to talk about disabilities. This refers to putting the person first, and his or her disability second.  Instructors and staff should never put emphasis on the disability over the person. As an example, instead of saying, “He is learning disabled,” use a statement such as, “Tom has a learning disability.”


Autism spectrum disorder is when a person has a limited ability to communicate, engages in repetitive behaviors, and finds it difficult to transition from one activity to another activity.  In March of 2014, the CDC released new data on the prevalence of autism in the United States.  One out of every 68 children has an autism spectrum disorder; boys have a 1 out of 42 chance and girls have a 1 out of 189 chance.

The term developmental delay (DD) refers to those showing a delay in one or more of the following development areas: physical, cognitive, communication, social, emotional, or adaptive skills.  According to Morin (2014) in the article Developmental Delays by the Number, “Four percent of children in the United States who are two to eleven years old have a developmental delay.”  As a teacher or instructor, it is important to understand the type of developmental delay, and provide instructional strategies accordingly. 

According to The ARC, the largest national community-based organization advocating for and serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, the term intellectual disability refers to a below-average cognitive ability with these characteristics:

  • Intelligent quotient (or I.Q.) between 70-75 or below
  • Significant limitations in adaptive behaviors (the ability to adapt and carry on everyday life activities such as self-care, socializing, communicating, etc.)
  • The onset of the disability occurs before age 18                  

The Special Olympics (2017) stated that there are 6.5 million people in the United States who have an intellectual disability.

Here are some other specific disabilities that your students may have:

            Vision Impairment

            Hearing Impairment

            Learning Disability

            Emotional Disturbance

The term multiple disability, refers to someone who has more than one disability.  For example, Joe is a ten-year-old who has Autism and a vision impairment.  Joe’s main disability would be having Autism, but he also has a vision impairment that impacts some of his functioning.

Instructors will also want to be aware of the basic information regarding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  IDEA was enacted to ensure that children with disabilities receive a free appropriate education, just like children without disabilities. If a student has an adaptive aquatic goal that states that he/she will be given 30 minutes of adaptive aquatics every other week, then legally the school district must provide this to the student.

According to the Department of Labor website, the ADA “prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications, and governmental activities. The ADA also establishes requirements for telecommunications relay services.”  If you are running a public swimming pool, then it should be accessible to all possible users.  Adding a wheelchair lift would be one way to make a public swimming pool accessible.  Having the correct number of accessible bathrooms is another example of complying with ADA rules and regulations.


The next part of this article will deal with assessment, writing goals and objectives, and lesson planning.

It is critical that adaptive swim instructors complete an aquatic assessment prior to initiating the classes or sessions.  During the assessment, the swim instructor is looking at how the individual performs specific aquatic skills and/or swim strokes.  Once the skills are assessed, the instructor can determine what skills need to be taught.

Some water skills covered during an assessment include front float, back float, gliding, gliding with a kick, and head bobs.  Instructors not only have to deal with participant’s water skill performance but also his/her level of motivation.  Lepore, Gale & Stevens (1998) explain that an assessment is needed “to determine present level of performance, helping you place a participant in the right program with the proper level of support services" (p. 61).  It is also important to note the participant’s medical conditions and medications to be better prepared during an emergency.  For example, staff should know how to handle a seizure that occurs in the pool.

Swim instructors should not only complete the initial assessment but complete an on-going assessment.  On-going assessments allow the instructor to update skill checklists and modify new objectives based on the progressive results.  According to Lepore, Gale and Stevens (1998), “you need to continue gathering information about an individual's performance, to evaluate that information, and continuously make decisions as to placement, support services, and projected goals and outcomes" (p. 63).

Once the assessment is completed then the swim instructor can write out individual goals and objectives, which is the next step in programming administration.  Goals are general statements that a person would like to accomplish.  Objectives are the specific details that one will undergo to accomplish their goals.  Goals and objectives are closely related and are needed to provide a successful adaptive aquatic program.

Let’s look at an example.

Specific goal:

  • Billy will demonstrate aquatic readiness, so that he will become more comfortable in the swimming pool.

Objectives that support this goal:

  • Billy will do a supportive back float for 20 seconds with the instructor’s hands on his back over the next eight weeks.
  • Billy will do eight head bobs, in which his head is totally submerged, by himself in the shallow water with verbal prompting from the instructor during the next eight weeks.

When writing objectives, there should be a very specific skill identified, along with requirements, prompting level, and a designated time frame.  In the first objective, Billy is being asked to do a supportive back float (specific skill), holding the float for 20 seconds is the requirement that will be met, the instructors prompting level is hand-to-back, and eight weeks is the time frame.  In the second objective, head bobbing is the specify skill, eight bobs where the head is submerged is the requirement, verbal is the type of instructor prompting, and eight weeks is the time frame.

Instructors should also write out lessons.  There are two planning tools that instructors can use.  The term block planning refers to laying out the skills that will be taught over a specific period of time.  For example, if there are ten weeks in a session, then the instructor might write out the skills that will be taught in ten blocks (one block for each week).  Instructors could also use spread sheets for block planning.  The second option is a daily lesson plan that spells out what the instructor will teach and the steps that they will use each day.  Here is a format of a typical lesson plan: Safety Topics, Equipment, Opening, Skill Review, New Skill introduction, New Skill Practice, and Summary/Fun Activity.

Instructors should think about how they are going to present information, and consider using repetition to assist their students who have intellectual disabilities.  The term task analysis refers to breaking down a task/objective into smaller parts so that the individual can perform the task with success.  By completing a task analysis, instructors will be able to demonstrate and teach skills in a way that provides a successful learning experience.  Blasch, Wiener & Welsh (1997) state that, “Task analysis benefits the students by enabling the student to realize success as each subtask of the objective is accomplished” (p. 397).

Once the instructor has written and implemented the lesson plan, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of the lesson plan.  On page 47 the American Red Cross’s Water Safety Instructors Manual (2014) there are questions to help evaluate the effectiveness of your lesson plan:

  1. Did I follow the plan?
  2. Did the participants have enough time to practice?
  3. Did I choose the right activities, were the drills too difficult, time consuming or easy?
  4. Did I use my teaching area effectively?
  5. Were the drills I used right for the ages and abilities of the participants?
  6. Did I use a variety of methods and equipment to enhance learning?
  7. Did the participants improve?



The term water learning is how instructors or parents introduce children to the water in a non-threating manner.  Susan Grosse (2007) states that, “Water learning uses activities in an aquatic environment to enrich and reinforce learning in nonaquatic areas of child development. Water learning is used primarily to reinforce academics. However, water learning can also reinforce motor skills, physical fitness, perceptual-motor development, and sport skills” (p. 3). An example of becoming oriented to the water while working on body concepts:  the child will take a sponge from a bucket and squeeze the water onto his/her body parts as the instructor calls out different body parts. Another example of water learning could have a child blowing bubbles with a straw in a bowl of water.  Here the student is working on breath control.

It may take months, or even years, to get a child to the point where they are fully adjusted to water and are no longer afraid.  The child may need to start with a few minutes of water learning time and gradually increase the duration of activity.  Grosse (2007) stated that, “Children with cognitive disabilities need more time to learn academics. Although they may be the same chronological age as their classmates, their mental age can lag further behind as they get older” (p. 8-9).

It is better to have a few good minutes of quality water time then twenty minutes of non-quality water time.  It is also, important to be mindful of age appropriate water activities.  So, have fun, be prepared, and select age appropriate water learning activities.  For additional information, check out Susan Grosse’s Water Learning (2007) by Human Kinetics.



Adaptive swim instructors need to understand basic disability information, know how to complete assessments, and plan their lessons in an encouraging and fun manner. Instructors should continually evaluate lesson plans, as well as student performance, to optimize success. Instructors should enjoy what they do, and always be well prepared.



American Red Cross.  (2014).  Water Safety Instructors Manual. Yardley, PA: Stay Well.

Blasch, B., Wiener, W., & Welsh, R.  (1997).  Foundations Of Orientation & Mobility Second Edition. New York, NY: AFB Press.

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.  (2014, March).Autism Spectrum Disorder Data & Statistics.

Retrieved From

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.  (2014, October). Unintentional Drowning: Get the Facts.  Retrieved From

Department of Labor.  (2017, January). The Americans with Disabilities Act.  Retrieved From

Grosse, S.  (2007).  Water Learning. Champaign, IL:  Human Kinetics.

Lepore, M., Gayle, G. & Stevens, S.  (1998).  Adapted Aquatics Programming: A Professional Guide.

Champaign, IL:  Human Kinetics.

Morin, A.  (2014, May).  Developmental Delays by the Numbers.  Retrieved From

Special Olympics.  (2017, January).  How Common Are Intellectual Disabilities?  Retrieved From

The Arc.  (2017, January). Intellectual Disabilities Characteristics.  Retrieved From



Brendan Tedrick has a bachelor’s degree from Temple University in Sports & Recreation Management & a master’s degree in Vision Rehabilitation Therapy from Pennsylvania College of Optometry.  He is a certified vison rehabilitation therapist & a certified orientation & mobility specialist from ACVREP.  Brendan has been teaching swim lessons and American Red Cross lifeguarding for the past twenty years.  When he is not in the pool, he can be found reading a good book or hanging out with friends & family.  He can be reached at

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