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Santiago's tips for swimming success

Photo: Santiago's a natural in the water

When Santiago (11) started learning to swim, mum Nathalie worked with his swimming teachers to come up with strategies to help him communicate in the pool.

As Santiago chats excitedly about the tropical fish and shiny shells he discovered on the family’s last trip to Colombia, it’s clear he’s a natural in the water.

“He’s like a fish!” laughs mum Nathalie. “He’s always jumping off rocks and diving into caves. I think his deafness is a benefit. My husband can’t dive too deep as it makes his ears hurt, whereas Santiago can keep going. He swims deeper than his dad!”

However, Nathalie and her husband, Cesar, haven’t always felt so confident about letting Santiago in the water. “We learned Santiago was moderately deaf when he was four, and he started learning to swim soon afterwards,” explains Nathalie. “I was worried about how he’d cope without his hearing aids in. Parents could only watch the swimming lessons from a designated area, so if anything happened, I wouldn’t be able to jump in the pool and help. I had to trust the teachers to take care of him.”

Santiago’s older sister, Aisha, was already learning to swim at the same leisure centre, so the family knew the staff who’d be teaching Santiago. “Having Aisha in the older group helped us feel more confident,” explains Nathalie. “The teachers knew us from taking Aisha, and Santiago was used to seeing the different teachers, classes and pools.

“The staff were really friendly, and before Santiago started lessons, we had a meeting with them to discuss his needs. At the time, we didn’t know whether Santiago’s hearing loss might deteriorate, but the leisure centre said, ‘We cater for everybody.’

“One option was for Santiago to have one-to-one classes with a teacher who used British Sign Language (BSL), but they were expensive, and Santiago doesn’t use sign language, so I wasn’t sure that would help.”

The family decided to put Santiago in mainstream group classes and worked with the teachers on strategies to help him communicate in the pool. “I asked the teachers to make sure Santiago could see their faces when they were talking, make eye contact to get his attention, crouch down to his level, and use gestures as much as possible,” explains Nathalie. “They also agreed to use exaggerated arm and leg movements to demonstrate different strokes. For example, if they were teaching front crawl, they’d exaggerate the movement, and use their fingers to show how many strokes to take.

“It worked really well. The teachers said that exaggerating their movements didn’t just help Santiago, it also helped other children who had English as an additional language. During lessons, I’d often see the teachers give Santi a thumbs up to check he’d understood them, and he’d give one back. That helped me feel more comfortable.”

Santiago took to swimming easily but found he struggled to swim in a straight line.

“Santiago’s deafness also affects his balance,” explains Nathalie. “The teacher told him to follow the tiles on the floor if he was swimming on his front, or the planks on the ceiling if he was swimming on his back.”

But unfortunately, not all of Santiago’s swimming teachers have been as helpful. “One week, Santiago’s class had a substitute teacher,” Nathalie says. “The teacher gave instructions to the group, but Santiago hadn’t understood. When it was his turn, the teacher got cross that he didn’t know what to do and shouted, ‘Didn’t you listen to me? Can’t you hear me?’

“I’ve raised Santiago to be proud of his hearing loss, but to have an adult shouting at him made him feel awful. I complained to the leisure centre and pointed out that lots of children have hidden disabilities which might not be obvious to the teacher. Luckily, the other teachers have been really friendly.”

As Santiago got older, he began taking part in swimming competitions. “At competitions, the cheering confused me,” remembers Santiago. “It was very loud. My sister was usually in the same competitions, and she’d tell me when it was my turn to race.”

After Aisha stopped competing, Nathalie began printing out the competition timetable so that she could gesture to Santiago when it was his turn to race. With support from his family, Santiago has now won lots of competitions and proudly displays his first-place certificates in his bedroom.

“Hearing loss doesn’t interfere with how your body works,” explains Santiago. “Sometimes I think the hearing part of my brain has been put in the sports part instead!” In addition to swimming, Santiago is also a keen footballer, rugby player and table tennis player.

“We had a hard time a few years back when Santiago felt down about his hearing loss,” remembers Nathalie. “He asked me why God had created him like this. Now that he’s older, he’s proud of his differences. We’ve taught him that his hearing loss makes him unique.

“We’re Colombian, and when we go back to Colombia, he’s treated as the ‘cool kid’ because he wears decorations on his hearing aids! In Colombia there’s no NHS, so you have to pay for your equipment and appointments yourself. Santiago knows how lucky he is to have his hearing aids.”

“My advice to a swimming teacher who’s teaching a deaf child would be to exaggerate your arm movements and be patient,” says Santiago. “My advice to another deaf child would be to listen carefully, not with your ears but with your eyes.”

“And also have…?” prompts Nathalie. “Have… faith?” suggests Santiago. “I was going to say have fun!” laughs Nathalie. “But yes, you’ve got to have faith too. There’s light at the end of the tunnel!”

See more advice about making swimming deaf-friendly.