Summer Series – Swimming

During my time as Hackney council’s Personalisation ambassador I delivered talks about my social care package. It was to show disabled people, professionals and local councillors in the borough the merits and difficulties of Direct Payments and Personal Budgets. I laid out the assessment process, defining your needs, creating outcomes, using the money and other resources to reach those outcomes and all other information in-between.

A particular part of the story I felt important to tell was around well-being. On reviewing my outcomes last spring I decided upon 1) maintaining the level of care I had to continue living a fulfilled life 2) to find an outlet for exercise, as since the age of 18 this provision falls off a cliff for disabled people 3) to go on an ‘adventure holiday’! I have written an article for Disability Now on social care and you may want to attend an online seminar around this matter soon. I have also blogged about the trip to California. However part 2 is to be explored here.

I had always loved swimming as a child. In Florida, aged 4, I took of my arm bands for the first time. My swimming technique was certainly different. I was very buoyant, in a vertical position, no leg movement and a kind of bobbing up and down with arms propelling me forwards. I swam for the British Heart Foundation, when Norma Major (the then Prime Ministers wife) helped me out of the pool for Anglia tv cameras. Yes it had a glint of brave disabled boy, but it was an achievement too. I raised a good amount of money and won a trophy for my efforts too. Also my mum is a swimming teacher and so my love of water comes from her.

Please see this old photo for a giggle

As touched upon, physio, swimming and general assistance with physical health drops off the metaphorical cliff. I used to swim at school with ample assistance in getting changed etc. As well as provision dipping, I also had major surgery aged 15 for a scoliosis (curvature) of my spine. This meant being in hospital for a month, after having 2 titanium rods and multiple screws on my spine. Not pleasant! Being laid up and careful for so long, I lost the ability to swim.

Fast forward 11 years and I mentioned swimming to my social worker, as per number 2 above. I expected access to a pool to be minimal, far away, costly and basically impossible to do around my office job. In just asking, I found out there was a pool around the corner from my flat that ran a disability swimming hour after work on a Tuesday. Amazing! Better still, there were people to assist my PA, hoists to left me, a bed to change on, and the floor of the pool raised up. ‘What’ you ask? Yes, the floor on one half of the pool raises up, the water flows through it and you wheel onto it in a shower chair. Then as the floor lowers down again, you are in the water and the chair is removed.

The first time I got in my PA had to support me the whole time. I was flipping and flopping around with no balance. Then I managed to gain some balance with a spaghetti float. However this meant my hands weren’t free. Then we used these armbands that looked ridiculous but kept me afloat, I could move my arms and not drown. For some weeks I bobbed around this way.

In Cyprus and a few other Hackney swimming sessions I took the armbands off but couldn’t quite balance or stay afloat. Finally a couple of weeks ago a golden moment occurred. I managed to float, balance and move slightly without any assistance. Every current took effort to fight against and every breath threatened to remove my buoyancy. Nonetheless I carried on regardless and swam around for a good few minutes.

I was absolutely shattered afterwards. My body hadn’t moved independently in years. Muscles that hadn’t been stimulated were asked to do their bit. The realisation and achievement of the situation came later. I had actually swum unaided for the first time in over 10 years since my operation! If I hadn’t just asked my social worker what I thought to be impossible, it wouldn’t have happened. I would urge you to do the same. Whether swimming, exercise related or other, just look into something you want to do but think it to be too hard – I bet you’ll be surprised, happy and proud of the outcome further down the line. I definitely was!


  1. I realise it’s a bit late now as you’ve thrown off the armbands (but it might be of benefit to some of your readers): Armbands restrict arm movement so are not ideal for learning to swim. Belts like this are much more practical because they don’t restrict limb movement in any way. When I used to teach we never used armbands in lessons because of the arm movement restriction: You can’t teach someone to swim properly when they don’t have free movement of their arms.

    You’ve not heard of pools with adjustable depth floors? Parkside in Cambridge has had such a bottom since its reopening in 1999.

    1. Thanks for that Lisa. I think the angle I swim at makes the belt harder and the armbands were tiny rings to just keep me floated enough with arm movement.

      In terms of the pool I never swam in Cambridge as I grew up in S.Ives, but its great to know other pools exist. I guess like I said its about asking around and not assuming its not possible.

      Thanks for your comment and sharing your insight for other readers though 🙂

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