SwimAbility Canada is a nation-wide organization that provides swimming and water safety instruction to children with mental and physical disabilities. University students run each of their 16 chapters, distributed across eight provinces, as not-for-profit organizations.
Drowning is a leading cause of injury-related child deaths, and children with disabilities are at an even greater risk. SwimAbility recognizes that traditional group swimming lessons are ill-suited for many children with disabilities, and has made it part of their mission to accommodate these children’s needs with specially designed programs.
The second half of SwimAbility’s mission is affordability. Each session consists of nine 30-minute lessons. One nine-week session costs only $20 which, compared to typical private lesson rates of about $30 per lesson, is a considerable discount. Josh Schiff, BSc ‘14 and member of SwimAbility Montreal’s executive team, spoke to the importance of SwimAbility’s discounted prices.
“Usually these types of services are much too expensive for many of these families, so to provide them at a low cost makes them so much more accessible,” Schiff wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune.
SwimAbility Montreal is run by McGill student volunteers, and all of its instructors and executives are members of the McGill community. They reach out to the Montreal community in an effort to assist as many children and families as they can, specifically targeting schools for children with special needs.
“Sadly, many of these children don’t feel comfortable in many social situations,” Schiff wrote. “They get bullied and treated unfairly, and are made to feel like their differences are something they should be ashamed of. With SwimAbility, they all feel included, happy, and surrounded by friends and people who love them.”
One of the most important factors in working with children with disabilities is consistency. SwimAbility pairs instructors with students at the beginning of a session, and the students work with the same instructor every Sunday morning for the next nine weeks. This helps create a bond between the students and the instructors, where the students feel more comfortable in the water.
Sanya Dalal, U1 Science, is a volunteer instructor for SwimAbility. After only one year with the club, she already feels a profound sense of purpose from working with her students. She loves the hands-on opportunity that allows her to give back to the Montreal community.
“I think the greatest part of what I’m doing is actually feeling like I’m making a change doing something worthwhile and actually seeing results,” Dalal wrote in a message to the Tribune. “A lot of volunteering organizations depend on indirect involvement, like raising funds and while those are very helpful, I feel like here, I’m making an actual difference as an individual.”
SwimAbility’s volunteers share Dalal’s sentiments and are inspired by their students’ progress every week. Schiff has been with SwimAbility Montreal for six years, yet he is still impressed every week by the work of his students and fellow instructors.
“I love getting up on Sunday mornings to teach my lessons, see all the kids and the proud parents, and watch what a tremendous difference all of our amazing instructors make in the lives of these families,” Schiff wrote. “Seeing how much the kids progress throughout the year, both in terms of their swimming and their comfort around the instructors and other children is the best part of what we do [….] To see this week in and week out is so heartwarming, and it’s an honour to be a part of such an amazing organization.”