Focus On Ability, Not Age

By Della Lowe
Photos: Courtesy of Della Lowe, City of St. George (UT), Leisure Services Department, Recreation Division

What happens when you take children with physical and emotional handicaps to a swimming pool? They often become confident and socialized and more able in other areas of their lives. At least that is what happened when the city of Saint George (Utah) Leisure Services Department and the Dixie Elks partnered to form the Flying Fish Swim Team—a program specifically designed for those with special needs. The program, which is held at the Sand Hollow Aquatic Center, launched its eighth season in January, and is designed to help each participant become physically active, build self-confidence and self-esteem, and develop swimming skills for fun and safety. The program has achieved some remarkable results.


“The density of the water, especially for special-needs children, provides a buoyant, supportive environment which takes pressure off the joints,” says Timmy Key, manager of aquatic services for the Leisure Services Department. “When a facility is designed, engineered, and built, it is done around what is the ‘norm.’ We need to focus on planning around the vast majority of users, but then identify how we can accommodate users who are outside that norm. Part of inclusiveness is not excluding people, so we try to include those with challenges—mental or physical or even financial—into our mainstream programs as well when possible.”

Falling Into Place
“Seven years ago, we were looking for a project that we could support for children with disabilities and approached the St. George Recreation Division. We were told that it was looking for activities which could be more inclusive,” says Betty Archambeau, Secretary of the Elks Lodge 1743. “At that same time, I was working with a high school here as youth coordinator on scholarships, and I met Karen Tobler, who was working with special-needs children and was willing to be the swim coach. With an initial grant of $2,000 from the ELKS National Foundation, it all fell into place.”

The program, which originally ran for 10 weeks twice per week from July until the beginning of September, has now expanded to run January through October. In growing the program, organizers found that more children could participate and they do not lose the gains they made during the nine-month hiatus. Participants range in age from 5 or 6 to 30 to 35, but because of various mental handicaps, the developmental age is that of a child. They suffer from a range of disabilities from Down Syndrome to stroke, cerebral palsy, autism, ADHD, etc., and are recruited by word of mouth through special-needs groups and group homes that work with the special-needs population.


A Confidence Builder
Wayne Sittre, whose 14-year-old grandson, Jordan Ivie, has participated in Flying Fish for five years, noted that the program allows these children an outlet for socialization and interaction with others who have restricted abilities, as well as interaction with volunteer staff members. “Initially, Jordan, who has Asperger’s, was afraid of water and could not swim at all. He was only comfortable with kids four or five years younger than he. He was reluctant to go to school and had to be physically carried in by the principal. Flying Fish was the beginning of his transformation. Now he dives off the high board, participates in dances at his church, and, best of all—made the … honor roll in school. Flying Fish taught him how to be social and confident. It was the impetus for a complete change in his life.”

Jordan’s mother, Tammie Ivie, agrees. “At first we tended to isolate Jordan to protect him from teasing and bullying. However, when you do that, the only behaviors children learn are those of other challenged children on the Autism spectrum. Once Flying Fish gave him the confidence to interact with groups of children, not [to] be disturbed by outside noise and stimuli, he could then accept the classroom experience better and model better behaviors.”

The city has found it important to have one or two volunteers or instructors for each child because each is at such a different level of ability, both physical and mental. The Dixie Elks provide not only many of the volunteers, but also much of the extra equipment needed for the program to function safely and effectively. The grant helped supply extra life jackets, floaties, goggles, swim caps, and awards for a banquet and barbeque at the end of each session.

Making It Safe
Of course, lifeguards must be present during these sessions, and Key admits that can create some scheduling issues because employees cannot exceed their hours. This should be taken into account when launching any program. “As a city, we strive to provide the best services we can to our constituents, while keeping in mind that we must stay within our budget.”

“To have the city decide it was worth putting money into this program and then to have the Elks come through by providing money and equipment is an amazing statement on the value that we as a community put on providing services for all our citizens,” says Karen Tobler, special-needs teacher at the aquatic center. “The city also supplements the program with city employees who are lifeguards and swim instructors. It is an amazing group effort and provided at a price point which allows every family to participate.”


Can-Do Attitude
Tobler notes that the instructors, volunteers, and participants must come to the program with the mentality that these kids can do and learn what they need to. She says that others too often do not give special-needs kids credit for how much they are able to do. “You need to figure out what works for each individual and provide a positive experience. It is not about what you can’t do. It is about what you can do. Because all of the participants have some degree of challenge, they feel comfortable with each other. There is no judging or bias from one to the other. They all work together in a joyful environment.”

The organizers also note that too often young athletes are put into groups by age rather than ability. Indeed, studies are showing that children born later in the year and put into age-appropriate teams rather than ability-appropriate ones often do not perform as well because “a few extra months of development can make a big difference in size, strength, and athletic ability.”

“So far, we have not found another special-needs swim team of the type we have started here, where kids are categorized by ability, which allows them to develop at their own pace,” says Tobler.

Della Lowe is a former emmy award-winning news producer for ABCNews and the marketing director for the DOCUTAH International Documentary Film Festival. Reach her at