by Bill Henderson
(Editor’s Note: Bill Henderson was an educator in the Boston Public Schools for 36 years. His book, “The Blind Advantage: How going blind made me a stronger principal” is available from Amazon in print, on BARD as DBC011362 from NLS, or from Bookshare. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I love to swim and have been doing this regularly all my life. When it is cold, I swim indoors in pools. When it is warm, I prefer to venture outside in the ocean and lakes.
Losing my vision in my 40s posed some swimming challenges. In pools, I was no longer able to see lane markers or walls, and in ocean and lakes, I was no longer able to see the shore.
Fortunately, some friends, family, and swimmers (both blind and sighted) have offered helpful suggestions. I now utilize a variety of adaptations described below which allow me to continue swimming blind and free.
Swimming in Oceans or Lakes
When I first lost my vision, I started recruiting sighted guides to swim alongside me or to direct me while standing on shore or in water. These accommodations worked relatively well, and I still use guides occasionally. However, this way makes me dependent on the availability and willingness of others, and I must check in frequently to ensure that I can hear their directions.
Recently I learned about another technique which allows me to be more independent. I tie one end of a rope to a small anchor and the other end to a loop which fits snugly around my waist. When entering the water, and this is the only assistance that I need, I ask a sighted friend to direct me to a spot in the lake or ocean that is at least 3 feet deep (so my arms do not scrape the bottom) and which is at least the length of the rope (25 feet works well for me) from any buoy, boat, or person. After securing the anchor in the right spot (usually I bury it a bit into the sand), I start swimming away from the anchor feeling the tension of the rope. It does not matter if I venture a bit to either side, nor do I worry about having to listen to directions from a guide. I can swim the crawl or the breaststroke with the knot of the rope on my back or the backstroke by switching the knot around to my stomach. If there are any waves, I usually find it easier to swim into them, but I can go wherever I want. With this technique, I swim to my heart’s content without worrying about bumping into something or heading out to sea. It is like running on a treadmill or using a stationary bicycle — great exercise and liberating.
Swimming Laps in a Pool
When I first lost my vision, I tried to swim either next to a wall or lane divider. I would constantly have to feel for the wall or divider, and I would count my strokes so as not to crash at the end of the lane. This worked relatively well. However, I was often preoccupied about touching the side and wall, so my swimming was more cautious and tentative than when I was sighted.
After some years, I learned another technique which allows me to swim more rapidly and freely. First, I request or wait for my own lane with lane dividers on both the left and the right. I find this works best if I go to the pool when it is relatively empty or if I call and notify the lifeguards in advance. Next, I tie a rope between the lane dividers about 3 feet (my arm length) from each end of the pool. This way I can swim as rapidly as I want and do not have to slow down until my hand or head hit the rope. Once at the rope, I can reach over it and touch the wall before pushing off with my feet. If interested in doing flip turns, a flotation device or sound signal might work better. However, since I am no longer racing, this rope system works fine for me.
Swimming is a wonderful exercise, and blindness need not be a barrier. With some creativity, there are many ways of swimming blind. Basically, blind swimmers should try out different adaptations, and then select the ones that best suit them. For me, the techniques describe above have been truly liberating, allowing me to swim blind and free.