Swimming and aquatic activities for children with disabilities can foster physical fitness and motor skill development within a physical education program and during recreational pursuits. In the opening scenario, Jack’s parents are within their legal rights to request swimming as part of their son’s IEP because aquatics is listed as a component of physical education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Aquatics instruction for students with disabilities is neither a luxury nor a therapeutic (related) service. Adapted aquatics means modifying the aquatic teaching environment, skills, facilities, equipment, and instructional strategies for people with disabilities. It can include aquatic activities of all types, including instructional and competitive swimming, small-craft boating, water aerobics, and skin diving or scuba diving (AAHPERD-AAALF, 1996).
Physical educators, school administrators, parents, related service personnel, and special education teachers must be educated about the benefits of aquatics and its role in a child’s physical education. The physical and psychosocial benefits of aquatics for students with disabilities are more pronounced and significant than for students without disabilities. Because of the buoyancy afforded by water, many people whose disabilities impair mobility on land can function independently in an aquatic environment without the assistance of braces, crutches, walkers, or wheelchairs. Although adapted aquatics does not focus on therapeutic water exercise, warm water facilitates muscle relaxation, joint range of motion (ROM), and improved muscle strength and endurance (Koury, 1996). Swimming strengthens muscles that enhance the postural stability necessary for locomotor and object-control skills. Water supports the body, enabling a person to possibly walk for the first time, thus increasing strength for ambulation on land. Adapted aquatics also enhances breath control and cardiorespiratory fitness. Blowing bubbles, holding one’s breath, and inhalation and exhalation during the rhythmic breathing of swimming strokes improve respiratory function and oral motor control, aiding in speech development (Martin, 1983; see figure 25.1).
Benefits are not limited to the physical realm. Water activities that are carefully planned and implemented to meet individual needs provide an environment that contributes to psychosocial and cognitive development. As a student with a physical disability learns to move through the water without assistance, self-esteem and self-awareness improve. Moreover, the freedom of movement made possible by water boosts morale and provides an incentive to maximize potential in other aspects of rehabilitation (Koury, 1996).
The motivational and therapeutic properties of water provide a stimulating learning environment. Some instructors even reinforce academic learning, successfully integrating cognitive concepts during water games and activities centered on math, spelling, reading, and other concepts. Participants might count laps, dive for submerged plastic letters, or read their workouts from a whiteboard. These types of activities also help participants improve judgment and orientation to the surrounding environment.