In the context of competitive swimming, disabled athletes, their coaches and support staff – particularly those with hidden and declared disabilities – are the learners under consideration here. To define ‘disability’ in the context of swimming we look to the internationally recognised classification system – broadened to include from a development point of view swimmers with learning difficulties, while the coaches and support staff may have an impairment related seeing, hearing, communicating and mobility. Whilst coaching takes place in a pool and gym, and indirectly at the dining table, learning takes place online, in workshops and at conferences, and through applied learning at the pool. E-learning is therefore part of the blend.
Mid-Sussex Marlins Swimming Club (Marlins) is a ‘Hub for Disability Swimming’ – which means it is recognised by the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) as the lead club in the Southern Region. Without ‘water time’ set aside for disabled swimmers there would be no swimmers with disabilities – though coaches with declared and hidden disabilities would still operate poolside. Marlins draws swimmers with a wide spectrum of disabilities from local specialist schools. As the club teaches and develops swimmers it overlaps with nursery, primary, secondary and even tertiary education.
As the London 2012 Paralymics demonstrated athletes with a wide range of disabilities compete in swimming – Marlins must correctly use the classification system when disabled swimmers compete, which in turn leads to an openness about the disability or disabilities which greatly improves communication between student and coach, or learning provider.
Athletes and coaches study a variety of sports topics relating to swimming in a series of stepped qualifications and continual professional development (a licensing requirement for coaches) largely through the ASA, but also at undergraduate and postgraduate level through specialist university courses. It is the relationship with the ASA, and its learning wing, the Institute of Swimming (IoS) that I wish to cover here as this is the primary source for both sets of learners. The ASA operates in England & Wales. Through something called the ‘Swim21 Accreditation scheme’ clubs agree to abide by a lengthy series of rules, regulations and practices across the three areas of compliance, workforce development and athlete development. There are issues, policies and safe guards in relation to swimmers and staff with disabilities in all three areas, including equity in sport to limit any discrimination, whilst directly related to disabled swimmers and coaches, provision to provide fully supervised and safe swimming sessions, with qualified and CRB checked staff – this disability section is managed by the club Disability Officer, while a Workforce Development Officer and Swim21 Officer ensure that stipulations regarding disabled swimmers and coaches are properly adhered to – this includes a close working relationship with the facility provider and liaison with the learning provider, the ASA. Seb Coe in his closing speech of the Paralympics 2012 spoke of ‘lifting the cloud of limitations’ and it is in this spirit that disabled people are encouraged to join the club as swimmers or coaches.
The nexus of workforce development and athlete development for disabled swimmers at Marlins is ‘empowerment’, which Tennant (2009:154) says is ‘what all education is about … whomsoever the learner might be’.
Learning takes places all the time, whilst the coaching context is poolside or in the water, or land based training in a gym, ‘education’ in the formal sense takes place online, in seminar and workshops on our premises or further away, as distance learning and campus based. The choice is wide, the result would best be described as ‘blended’ with both athletes and coaches keeping a personal development plan online monitoring their progress in a virtual learning environment on the IoS website called ‘My IOS’.
Competitive swimmers achieving or expecting to achieve Regional or National Qualifying Times are expected to take part in regular learning sessions to gain qualifications, or to earn and update CPD points. Topics include physiology, nutrition and hydration, tapering and long term athlete development. A coach is expect to achieve the Level 3 Head Coach qualification or beyond. At level 3 there are ten modules each comprising a chapter in a workbook, day-long seminar and paper assignment. Assignments are submitted electronically. To be licenses coaches must also do regular CPD – there are is wide range of these online. ‘Workforce’ members with specific roles are also expected to take and keep up to date a range of CPD qualifications, all available online as standalone or supporting units – topics include several in relation to disabled swimmers, as well as risk assessment, team management and so on. Both athletes and coaches have a personal development plan with goals set for the short, medium and long term. In relation to swimmers, a log book is kept – the coach will also have privileged information on an athlete’s disability or disabilities. This openness, of necessity in sport, is advantageous in the relationship between student and learning provider as armed with a clear statement of the disability provision can be made. A large club is likely to have specialist input from a physiotherapist and nutritionist and sports psychologist. Rules in relation to the Data Protection Act are followed closely, indeed there’s a one hour CPD on this too. One would therefore hope that in the learning context that the ASA would be better able to accommodate all learners with disabilities. Indeed, I have attended courses and taken qualifications where a Dyslexic coach has been supported by a note taker and reader, whilst online, the IoS ‘Accessibility’ provision is thorough, with the build of online build design with range of disabled learners in mind so that content can be enlarged, fonts and background altered, the text read by a Screen Reader and operated through unique sets of key or a tracker using devices such as a tracker ball.
There are a number of challenges in relation to the various stages through the learning process from 1) funding, the 2) time required, 3) access to online and distance learning materials and face-to-face learning and 4) assessment.
Funding for disabled learners – athletes or coaches, comes from five sources: 1) national and local government provision through the SFA as well as indirectly benefits and support in the community in relation to the disability so mobility, housing and other such allowances 2) sport specific support from the likes of Sports Council UK and the ASA, as well as from the learner’s club and local leisure operator, as well as grants or bursaries from 3) national and regional associations and institutions related to specific disabilities and 4) from post-compulsory education providers, colleges and universities who, for example, running courses in sports psychology, sports hydration and nutrition or leisure management 5) from parents, family and guardians and potential local community funds where support may be given for travel, accommodation and any specialist kit that hasn’t been provided for by other means. Going into detail, The ASA, for example, can provide a bursary of 50% of costs for a coaching qualification, while Sussex Sports can provide funding of between £100 and £1000 on a discretionary basis. These funds aren’t ring-fenced for provision to disabled learners who would need to apply in the normal way. What is more, there are many online courses, such as ‘An Introduction to the Data Protection Act’, ‘Protecting Vulnerable Adults’, ‘Help to encourage deaf children to swim’ and ‘Disability Awareness’ that are free and still result in CPD points being awarded towards licensing or qualification. At the highest level disabled athletes will receive Lottery Funding. Indirectly leisure operators make a contribution by making ‘water time’ available at discount rates ideally in peak hours, rather than side-lining disabled swimmers to less social hours and access.
Additional time needs to be factored in for disabled athletes and coaches, depending on the disability this will include time in relation to travel and accommodating their disability at learning venues. Online the IoS learning modules follow tight guidelines in relation to access – here, in particular the athlete with a disability, will be familiar with the nuances of their disability in relation to their sport and competitive classification – this means they should be able to communicate in a language that professional educators understand and so enable greater and better access. A key learning point when working with disabled swimmers is to identify and play to their strengths, it is therefore appropriate that this same approach is taken when providing learning. Clear, regular communication between the person with a disability and the institution providing courses is vital so that the best approach is identified and the most suitable kit and software – ScreenReader, Voice Recognition, software, tracker balls, Dictaphones, scanners and so on – are put in place in good time. When it comes to assignments and written exams, as well as oral exams and observation, additional time is given to make the assessment process equitable in the context of sports development.
Access depends on the quality and nature of the learning design including how assessment takes place. Motivation can be an issue for students with a disability, however a coach will have undertaken sports psychology so ought, perhaps better than educators or there in a mentoring and managing role, to understand how best to deal with stress and low motivation. What is more, people in sport used to setting short, medium and long term goals.
There are potentially four key individuals in the learning experience of a disabled athlete – their parent or guardian, at the club their coach and the disability officer, and at the learning provider, their tutor.