Adventures in Swimming Deafblind

“Who takes you swimming?” I’ve been asked.

“I take myself,” I say.

“But how?”

I’ve had this conversation often, both from other DeafBlind people and non disabled people. It is no secret that I have some vision and hearing, and I am not judging anyone else’s comfort level on how they get around, but I have never had SSPs or family around or a bunch of people available for rides or help, so I go most places on my own. Going to the gym is one of the places I go on the regular, and I do have to figure out several little things to make it work. This is how I do it. It might not be how others do it.

My gym is less than a mile from my house. It is a familiar route for me and I have been going there off and on for 15 years. There are only 2 very minor streets and one more difficult street to cross. The difficult street is a 3 way T intersection with a stop sign. I generally get there, count to 5, and tell my guide dog forward while making it super obvious that I am going to go. I also have to cross a set of light rail tracks. My guide dog is trained to stop for them. There is a rail crossing signal right there, and I can generally tell when they are deployed.

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My guide dog and I on the way to the gym.

When I get to the gym, I have to scan my card. The card thingy moves all across the counter everywhere. But the desk staff is used to me by now and usually bring it to me so I don’t have to search for it.

I then drop my guide dog off with a manager there named Charity who has agreed to watch her for me. This is a personal choice for me because it is hard to swim and shower with a guide dog on deck. I can and have taken her with me, but there is really no where to put her when I take a shower and she is just hanging out soggy and uncomfortable when she is at the pool and is not very happy. This is super helpful for Charity to be doing this for me and she is doing me a personal favor. There are no laws that require that the staff babysit my dog, she is just doing this out of the kindness of her heart, but it makes my and my dog’s life easier. If she is gone, I have permission to just slip my dog in her office. Then I use a folding white cane that I carry in my backpack around the gym.

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My guide dog getting comfortable in Charity’s office.

Because my gym uses combination locks that I can’t see, I have arranged for a different locker that is operated with a key. The locker is actually in the staff section of lockers out in a hallway. The good thing about this is that the locker is reserved for me and I have my own key, so I store a small amount of stuff there. The bad news is that its in the hallway.

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My key locker in the hallway. I have braille stickers on it so I can easily find it in the row.

Which leads us to locker rooms. I tend not to use the public locker rooms, although I can in a pinch. Yes, I am using the “gimp” showers. I have asked permission to do this, although technically you don’t need to and if there was a bunch of wheelchair users there one day, I would defer to them and go use the women’s lockers. I am using the disabled lockers for several reasons. First, it is because my locker is by the disabled shower rooms and not anywhere near or in the women’s locker room. Second, it is because before I started setting up my guide dog with Charity, I had no place to put her in the locker room while I showered and she could not easily guide me in there. The rows of lockers and benches are too narrow for her to guide me. Third, it is because being deafblind in a locker room with scantily clad individuals can be a little awkward. I get hit in the head with open locker doors my cane misses. I sometimes would run right into people who were naked and when you do this you tend to reach out to determine what you ran into and it makes everyone uncomfortable. And I could not see nor hear whether a shower was vacant or not. I could put my hand up and feel whether the water was running sometimes, but if someone was in there drying off, I can’t always tell. So, private lockers for me, for the most part.

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The private family/disabled shower area. Its pretty big and nice, actually. It has two sinks, a private shower and toilet area and a bench.

I depend a lot on tech, so one thing I have been experimenting with is using Aira to get me situated in the pool area. Aira is a service that blind people can call to have a sighted agent give you visual information. It is kind of like a remote interpreter for the blind. For me, I use Aira with a braille display. The Aira operators are sometimes great and sometimes not so great about texting me because they are used to people calling via phone and voice. When it works, it works great. I have special glasses with a go-pro camera on them. I text in, and I ask questions like, “Is there a lane free?” How many people are in the pool?” Can you help me walk to the free lane?” But sometimes, like today, they forget and talk to me rather than text. So, today…they were talking to me and since my phone was flat on my lap, it automatically went to speaker phone. So everyone is hearing this Aira agent talk to me except me. And so someone came up and said he would take me to a free lane, which was nice, but…that isn’t the way it is supposed to work.

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All of my tech that goes in the orange waterproof bag. My locker key, my braille display, my aira glasses and MIFI and my phone (not shown cuz its taking this picture.)

Swimming is challenging for people who use a lot of adaptive tech because much of the tech is not waterproof. I cannot wear my hearing aids in the pool area. I will not risk it at all. So, I really hear absolutely nothing, not even sounds. I only figured out the Aira agent was talking to me instead of texting because I could feel the vibrations of my phone on my lap. And then someone came up to talk to me and I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I figured it out fast. Still, it is a little nerve wracking when this happens, and confusing for me and others, so it is nice when the aira agent remembers to text me. Then I can do this all on my own.

I have a water proof bag that I put everything in. (I keep my hearing aids in my locker because I am not risking my $7000 hearing aids. I do risk my  phone and Aira glasses and braille display, but I try my best to keep them well away from the pool in a water proof bag.)

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My sign, cane and bag of stuff at the end of the pool lane. My sign says “Deafblind Swimmer” and then has some notes about how to communicate with me in an emergency, and explains that I don’t share lanes well.

I also use a sign. I do this mainly so people won’t talk to me and drag me around. I try to make the sign friendly, instructive and funny. But I really don’t know how people react to it. I think it helps because without it, people talk to me and I don’t even realize they are talking to me and it just seems rude. Or I have had people share lanes with me and I didn’t even know they were there until *CRASH!!!* and then they are upset with me and I still can’t understand them. So this is a relatively new thing, but it seems to be working ok.

As far as swimming itself…I am a fitness swimmer. I am not that good, so I just like to keep moving in the water. But I am trying to improve my stamina and lap speed by using swim.com app on my apple watch. It keeps track of your laps and times and can even tell the difference between strokes. I can use the apple watch with voiceover…..sort of. It gets really hard in the pool. I have to hold it up to my ear and even then, I am kind of guessing about what it is saying. So, I tend to use Siri and memorize how to get a workout started and then look at the stats when it transfers to my phone later.

Swimming itself as a DB person is not that big of deal. The two challenges are swimming straight and knowing when you are going to hit the wall. I swim pretty straight most of the time, but I do try to put my hand on the tiles on the pool wall (looks like an plus sign) to center myself before I take off. Then I count strokes to keep track of where I am in the lane. Yes, I do bump a wall or a rope on occasion, but it isn’t totally pinball or anything. The I just straighten myself out. It’s another reason not to share lanes.

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A screen shot of my swim.com app on my phone that keeps track of my swims. It shows laps, yards, times, that type of info. Yes, I am working on improving all this!

One feature that I hope they develop on apps like swim.com is a vibrating thingy that would tell you when you are getting to the end of the lane so you don’t bonk your head or hand. I don’t usually do this because I tend to count strokes and I slow down when I am getting to the ends. But if I were really trying to increase my speed, it would be nice to have a vibrating indicator on the watch. It seems to be able to tell when you’ve reached the end of a lap and can count your laps for you, so it seems like the tech is there to do this, and I think it might help sighted swimmers, too. But for now, there is really no great way to tell when you are at the end of the lane except for slowing down.

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My Apple watch with the swim.com app on it. I would like it if it could do a little more haptic stuff for me, but it does keep track of my swims.

Real blind swimmers in the paralympics use trained “tappers” to tap them when they are near the end of the lane, but if you want to swim solo it seems like technology could handle this task for the blind swimmer. Don’t you think swim.com??

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A stock photo that shows a paralympic swimmer in a race being tapped by his coach. The coach uses a long pole to tap him when he nears the end of the lane so he can flip turn. They practice the timing of this till it is flawless.

So, none of these accommodations are all that difficult, but they do take cooperation from your gym. And I have to say that my gym has been extremely cooperative in working with me and making me feel like I am a member just like everyone else. (Plug: HFAC.com) Inclusion is a choice they have made that allows me to swim solo and I always appreciate it when people can just be accommodating and not make things into a big deal that don’t have to be.

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A “knee shot” of me after my swim. It shows me sitting outdoors in a lounge chair by the outdoor pool. In summer, I get to hang out and pretend I’m on vacation after my lap swim.

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