When My Son With Down Syndrome Found True Inclusion at a Swim Class


Rightly or wrongly, I’ve decided I want my son, Wade, to try mainstream activities first before we try disability-specific ones. This is not a judgment about other parents’ choices. Different kids need different things. I have Plan A for Wade and then I’m prepared to go to Plan B if needed. I think it’s important to ask, “Why not?” before I ask, “Can he?” when I’m choosing an activity.

When I thought about swimming classes, I had thought about one-on-one hydrotherapy. And then I thought, just stick him in a class and see what happens.

When we first started, I was really apprehensive. I wasn’t worried about how he’d compare with other kids. I know he has developmental delay, and he didn’t need to be better than all the rest. But I do need him to have the space and time to hear the instructions and complete the movement in a way that doesn’t hold up the whole class. At the same time, I need to give him the idea of what we’re trying to do without rushing him.

I went down to the local swim school for a tour and a chat and launched into how Wade has Down syndrome and asked how much space would there be for him to learn at his own pace.

It dawned on me quickly that I was the only one worried about Down syndrome here. It just wasn’t a problem. He was 18 months old, but we would try him in the youngest class and just see how he went.

His teacher, Alex, was an absolute dream. We went at our own pace, and I took my time with each element of the class and made sure he was at least watching while I gave him a visual sign for each instruction. Each new milestone was met with huge celebrations and lots of cheering — mainly from me!

When we first started, we were given a big poster of all the levels he had to reach before he could graduate to the kinder class. It seemed like a lot. Every time he learned a new skill, we went home with a sticker to mark the occasion on the poster. I looked at the giant space that read, “You have graduated to kinder class,” and wondered if he would ever get there.

Some days were easier than others, and some days he loved more than others. But slowly and surely, he started getting better. He started getting more and more stickers, and I realized that with constant reinforcement and a bit more willingness for me to let go, he was learning really well. I’ll admit to letting go a few happy tears the day I took my hands away from his body and realized he was swimming on his own (with floaties and a belt) and loving it.

When we started back this year after the break, the center manager told me Wade was old enough for the kinder class.

The class without the parents in the pool?

“Do you think he is ready?”

“His skills are certainly there. I don’t see why not.”

We then had a discussion about learning how best to communicate with him, how to get and keep his attention and how to work toward making it happen.

We agreed Alex would take him one-on-one outside of class times to help learn how to communicate with him and see how he goes, then we would plan to move him up when we were ready.

Just like that.

No begging.

No fighting.

No applications for funding.

No special treatment.

No pretending he can swim and giving him a plastic encouragement trophy.

No forms.

No extra staff.

No medical clearances.

No sideways glances.

No rolling eyes.

No hesitation.

No problem.

It was just, “He’s eligible. How can we help make this happen?”

I was so stunned at how easy inclusion can be when people just get it! I didn’t even have to ask for it.

After a couple of weeks, he achieved everything he needed to move up and he graduated to kinder class. As we said goodbye to our old class, I lost it, sitting on the edge of the pool ugly-crying. This is what real inclusion feels like. It’s not a big deal; it’s just people recognizing what he needs and asking how they can help us get there.

I felt so grateful to get to an experience like this, especially when I think about how hard parents have to fight to get understanding and support for their kids in some mainstream activities.

This is what real inclusion feels like, and for all those unsuspecting teachers and coaches ahead of us in the years to come, this will be the benchmark I’ll be using from now on.

Leticia Keighley the mighty.2-001

Follow this journey on Embracing Wade.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us about a time someone went out of his or her way to make you and/or your child feel included or not included. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our “Share Your Story” page for more about our submission guidelines.

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