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Making outdoor swimming more accessible for people with disabilities

Disabled swimmer Sophie Etheridge on her mission to help make open water swimming more accessible for people with disabilities

For the first 19 years of my life I was fully able bodied, fairly healthy and had no barriers to participating in both competitive pool swimming and open water swimming. However, after a cycling accident in 2011 I am now physically disabled, and it was only after my accident that I realised how ignorant I was – Open Water Swimming is sadly not an accessible or inclusive sport.

After any traumatic, life-changing accident, it takes time to recover and come to terms with living your life in a different way. I knew I wanted to get back into open water swimming, but the question was: How? How could I overcome the barriers stopping me doing what I wanted? How could someone that spends 90% of their time in a wheelchair, and can only walk short distances on crutches, access open water swimming – not only physically, but mentally too?

Group Collage 1

Sophie Etheridge (top left)

The answer? With help, support and understanding.

Here’s an idea of the research I have to do as a wheelchair user before going to a new open water venue or to an event:

  • What is the car parking like? Are there disabled parking spaces? Is the car park tarmacked?
  • How far is the entry to the water from the car park and what is the terrain like?
  • Are there disabled changing rooms?
  • Is there somewhere safe to leave my wheelchair?
  • What is the entrance to the water like? Is it a ramp? A beach? Steps? A sudden drop?
  • Will there be anyone available to assist me getting in and out the water?
  • If I leave my crutches on the bank when I’m in the water, can the venue guarantee they will be there when I get out?
  • Will I be allowed to start an event in the water?

All of those questions have to be asked before even thinking about what there is in terms of safety cover. It’s stressful and exhausting, but the solution is simple; all that needs changing to make it more accessible is events and venues to start stating the accessibility at their venue/event on their websites.

It ended up being five years before I got back into open water swimming after my accident, and it was tough. There were so many barriers to overcome and I had no one to help me. No one to give me any advice and no one to turn to for help. I quickly discovered that it wasn’t only the physical barriers I needed to overcome, but the mental challenges of it too. I discovered that if you turn up at an event and are disabled in any way people look, stare, talk about you and sometimes even question you. If you are still new to having a disability that can be incredibly hard to deal with and even upsetting. All disabled people want is to be accepted and treated like everyone else.

Currently, there is little support for outdoor swimmers with disabilities. But I want to change that. I want to try and make it easier for those with physical disabilities to get into open water swimming. I want to try removing some of the barriers that they face so they can fall in love with the sport and enjoy it, like I do.

In the past year I have written to several organisations regarding this issue and have had a response from most saying that they will raise the issue, but I rarely hear back from them again.

So, I decided to create my own support network of outdoor swimmers with disabilities on Facebook so that we can all support and help each other. In just one week the group has gained over 200 members. Not only are there swimmers with with disabilities in the group but also coaches who want to make their business’ more inclusive, and friends of those with a disability asking for guidance on how they can best support their friend into outdoor swimming. There is a real community growing, with people helping each other and asking questions and simply sharing their love of the water. It feels like we, as a disabled open water community, finally have some support, advice and most importantly a voice that we aren’t afraid to use.

This is the group – https://www.facebook.com/group…

As part of trying to increase awareness of getting more disabled people into the sport, I decided I wanted to show everyone what a disabled swimmer can achieve when given the right support. So, on 1 September 2021, I am going to be taking on the huge challenge of a two-way solo Windermere swim. I am also training to be a Level 2 Open Water coach to show that even though I am disabled I can still help others into the sport in a safe and sensible way. Once I am qualified, I hope to start a small business working with people with disabilities and help them into open water swimming.

If anyone reading this feels they may be able to help me in my endeavour to make outdoor swimming accessible, please drop me a message via my facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/SEadaptiveathlete

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