Adaptive swim-class

“I qui oh the way!”

At our first adaptive swim-class, Nichole repeats the line from one of her favorite Barbie movies, “I am the queen of the waves!”


Her speech is poor and she has a long way to go. But after a couple of laps around the pool, an older boy approaches us with a loud, “Oh, oh, oh!” All of a sudden, I feel grateful for Nichole’s speech and the fact that she can communicate with us. Most likely, she will speak fluently by the time she is the boy’s age. I feel myself tense as I do not know how to interact with the boy, so I ask him, “Can you sign and show me what you are saying?” But he responds with more “oh, oh, oh!”

When we first walked into the adaptive swim-class, I instantly felt overwhelmed by the different special needs swimming in the water. I held Nichole close to me and thought, we don’t belong here. My first instinct was to turn around. I felt scared, taken out of my comfort zone, yet surprised by my reaction. Don’t I have two children with special needs?  I can do this, I reminded myself, these are my people.

“Oh, oh, oh!” The boy continues. His mother comes over and explains he is singing us a song. As I swim away with Nichole, the woman begins to sing along with her son, he is delighted, claps his hands and hugs his mother. She smiles at him from a deep place so full of love that it is hard not to feel moved by the interaction. I  realize I have much to learn about disability.

I like Down syndrome. Down syndrome has changed me, it is familiar. Nichole and I swim in the pool, she is the queen of the waves, and I am a student, learning what it means to really embrace disabilities. Not only those that I am familiar with, but all of them. I am learning to look at the person, not the disability.

I come home and tell my husband, “We have it really easy when it comes to special needs.” I tell him how I felt, and how much I have to learn.

For the next class, Nina is signed up for the swim class too and we have permission to bring our oldest daughter. I prepare the girls telling them about the big boy that cannot talk. As soon as we enter the pool, we hear the unmistakable, “Oh, oh, oh!” The girls are not scared the way I was, they just get in the pool and have fun. When they swim by him, they wave and say hi.

My children have a greater acceptance of disability and of people that are different.  Sure, Nina has Cerebral Palsy, she knows she is different, but she is also open to those that have more challenges than she does, she find something good and positive and praises those qualities. Nichole is too busy being the queen of the waves, but I  wonder what she will think when she realizes that other people look at her as different. As for Ellie, her sisters are her sisters, they are normal. Every individual with a disability we encounter is a person – and perhaps they have a disability – but it does not matter because everyone has talents, gifts, and even abilities.  My children know what acceptance really looks like. I will follow their lead and look past the disability to see the person.

The adaptive swim-class is a place where kids with special needs learn how to swim. Nonetheless, it is a place where a scared mom continues to learn how to swim in the world of disability, acceptance, and unconditional love.

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  1. Tom Nesler says

    Your girls are not afraid of misunderstanding a special needs child’s attempt to interact with them. I pray that we could have that faith and trust. Like you, Ellen, I fear the things I don’t understand. I feel embarrassed when I can’t communicate properly.

    • Ellen Stumbo says

      And isn’t it somewhat “ironic” that we should be familiar and comfortable with disability, yet we still have much to learn?

  2. says

    I was surprised at your admission of being intimidated by the little boys disability. I guess I assumed being a mom with special needs kids meant you were comfortable with different disabilities. But it makes sense we all have things that we’ve grown accustomed to and things that stretch us. I appreciate your reminder that everything is a growth process.

    • Ellen Stumbo says

      I was surprised too Beck. Although he is not a little boy, he is big, in his teens. But all the same, I realized how much I still have to learn, but I look forward to learning!

  3. says

    I love this piece and I completely identify with it. I have caught myself feeling and thinking similar things and it surprised me that I had to talk myself in the right direction. Thank you for being so humble and honest here.

    • Ellen Stumbo says

      Even my own children challenge me all over again at times! Thanks for the comment Michele :)

  4. Judy says

    Ellen, I love reading your posts. They hit me to the core, more often than not. I could see myself feeling exactly as you do, but not having the courage to say it. Thank you for expressing yourself and your feelings honestly!!!

    • Ellen Stumbo says

      Thank you Judy, it is not always easy to share, sometimes it takes a while to get there 😉