Swimming with Visual Impairment

By Bill Pasco

with Annie Pal, PT, Macon, GA


Once I enter the water and let go of the side, I become totally dependent on sound for orientation. In an echo filled tile indoor enclosure, this is really hard.

If the orientation problem can be solved, swimming is a liberating experience for many blind people. There are a surprising number of blind people who have never had the courage to move rapidly, or run full speed for fear of colliding with something. Some of us, who did have the courage if not the sense, have the scars to prove it. Diving into a pool, and swimming full out, or diving deep and swimming the length under water gives a real sense of freedom. In a pool you can assume many different body positions while moving through the water which feels wonderful, is good for you physically, and actually sensual. My sense of touch is developed not only in my fingers but also all over. When touch becomes a primary sense, instead of a secondary one, you pay much more attention to your skin sensations everywhere. The water in the pool is stimulating to the entire skin area.

I remember learning to swim. The instructors walked along the side of the pool as we swam the length, and they would talk to us continuously. Even when learning rhythmic breathing, our heads still came up enough to hear. This was very effective at keeping us oriented. I could judge distance from the side, and swim straight. When that cue was removed, I swam on an angle because one side of our body is always stronger than the other. When I had little vision, I would use the lights on the ceiling to help stay straight.

I progressed to teaching blind kids to swim at camp. If they were anxious in the water, I found that keeping slight physical contact with them calmed them down. Once they actually learned to swim though, contact was not practical. Then sound was needed.

An outdoor pool is more difficult as all sound dissipates. I still have trouble in my own pool unless I have a radio playing, or the aerator spraying to give me something to orient to.

One caution: Hearing in the water is as defined as on land. The result: I can smack right into the side headfirst with no warnings at all. I have learned to ALWAYS keep at least one hand out in front of me, even when gliding, so it touches the side first.

How do I avoid being a menace when I dive? And how do I know when Im exactly on the edge of the pool in diving position and oriented to dive in the right direction with no hazardous floating objects in my path? Is my sonar that good? I find the edge of the pool by sliding my feet when I know I am near the edge. This enables me to feel the edge with my toes without overbalancing. To be truthful, I have more than once, walked off the edge from not paying attention. (Since it is water, it is just embarrassing.) If I stand on the side, or the diving board, I can line up for a safe dive by using a toe touch. If Im diving using the three step and bounce method, I do what good diving instructors teach. You stand on the edge of the board with your back to the water and pace off the steps.

I am not a menace because people make a lot of noise when swimming. Besides, other people are not supposed to swim in a restricted diving area. In my home pool, if I know there are floats and such in the water, I just ask anyone in the pool if there is anything in the way. If I am alone, I take all the stuff out. I did not think of these methods consciously before. They developed automatically over time as the need came up. Just as you, a sighted person, dont consciously think about how you are going to take a walk. You just do it and, if necessary, learn as you go.

My experience is only personal but I hope it can help others.