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The aquatic environment may be one of the very best venues for individuals with spinal cord injuries.  The freedom associated with movement in or on the water  may prove enabling.

The type of spinal cord injury and the level of Central Nervous System lesion will help the aquatic instructor and the swimmer identify a starting point for the program. (Cowart, 1998)  This, of course, is to be supplemented by a quality aquatic assessment. The intent is to create a program that will fit the individual's unique needs and strengths.  A progression of trial and error is suggested. (Albright, 1995)

Transfer from a wheelchair or other ambulatory aids needs to be considered when entering and exiting the pool. Placing mats on the deck of the pool for transfer from a wheelchair or crutches into the water will prevent injuries. Making sure the wheels on the wheelchair are locked before transfer could help to make this safer.  Transferring only with dry hands will prevent injury, as well.

Communication between the aquatic instructor and the swimmer is a must. Work with the individual to share what the program is going to try to accomplish and what might be experienced or expected through the activities. This is going to be an important factor that allows them to feel comfortable, relaxed, and safe in their aquatic environment.

Floatation devices may be used, if necessary, to help with the safety of movement through the water. These devices can also help the individual to  achieve a streamlined body position in the water. An observer can play an important role in the adjustment process. (Albright, 1995)  While flotation devices may be effective learning tools, it is hoped the swimmer or water exerciser will be able to participate in water activity without using a flotation device.

Activities should be used to promote the individualís adjustment to the disability and level of movement through the water. This can include work on improving body awareness and range of motion around the joints. Attention needs to be pad to working the muscles of the upper body and postural muscles. In addition to this, passive movements of the lower limbs will be important for working on muscles.

As the swimmer or aquarobics exerciser gets stronger the use of additional equipment can help to create more resistance. Objects such as weights, milk jugs, etc. are examples of these.

Determine what stroke is going to be functional for the individual according to their level of injury and adapt it accordingly. An example of this would be having a person turn their head during breathing to the affected side to create more range of motion on that side. A person could tuck his/her chin during a stroke to allow them to become more horizontal in the water. (Albright, 1995)

It is critical that swimmers with spinal cord injuries have excellent skills for moving from front to back, and making a smooth transition from lying prone or supine to standing in the water. These transitions will also play an important role in the individual's overall safety.


Cowart, J. (1998). Teaching swim skills to the hard to reach students. Palaestra, Winter, 32-38.

Albright, C. (1995). Swimming techniques for individuals with physical disabilities. Palaestra, 11(2), 16-21.

This content was created by Jennifer Robeson,
Master's Student in Adapted Physical Education at Texas Woman's University,
as part of requirements for
"Aquatics for Special Populations", Huettig, Summer, 1999.

page last updated 1/3/2017 1:00 PM