At the Birchmount Community Centre, individuals with physical disabilities will be able to swim for a 40 minute segment between 12:00 pm- 3:00 pm. If needed they can also receive help from well-trained staff provided by Tobias House and Birchmount.

No barriers to swimming for physical disabilities

Summer may be over but that doesn’t mean summer activities can’t continue – even for those with physical disabilities.

Starting Oct. 19 and running until Dec. 15 is the Barrier-Free Access Swimming Program for people with physical challenges. The program takes place once a week for a few hours at Birchmount Community Centre, and at other locations across the Greater Toronto Area.

Founded 10 years ago, the program was developed for the needs of people with physical disabilities and the need to access basic community centres. Judith Allen has been the Able and Active Coordinator at Birchmount for nine years.

“Some individuals require aid to get changed and some need support in the pool as well in order to participate,” Allen said.

“We’ve also had people in the program with mild cognitive disabilities that were in conjunction with their physical challenge.”

Every Tuesday from noon until 3:00 pm, there are 40-minute swimming segments where a few people at a time can swim recreationally, or build on their fitness goals to help improve their muscle strength. Well-trained staff are there to help them access the centre, change, and get in the pool.

“We can help people with their fitness goals,” Allen said. “Some have exercises given to them by physical therapists, and others come in with personal goals. We have one guy who comes in for stroke rehab and his goal is to walk again, so we help him with the process.”

This program is one of the only opportunities for people with disabilities to access an aquatic program.

— Judith Allen

Tobias House provides care attendants and other personal support services for individuals with physical disabilities. Constantine Iliopoulous is the manager of those attendants for the Barrier-Free Access to Swimming Program. He explains that the program is coordinated through several organizations including the Tobias House, Parks and Recreation, the City of Toronto, Birchmount Community Centre, and several more. According to Iliopoulos the program is one of a kind in terms of physical activity programs for people with physical disabilities.

“We have well-trained staff and volunteers who have been so dedicated to working on bringing this program together,” Iliopoulos said. “Swimming is very beneficial […] because of the weightlessness in swimming, it has an easier impact the body to move and it helps with circulation.”

“This program is one of the only opportunities for people with disabilities to access an aquatic program”, Allen said. “Most other pool facilities and programs require them to bring their own staff to help them change or for physical assistance in the pool. It’s very hard to find a program outside a rehabilitation hospital that provides that kind of assistance.”

This levels out the playing field for those who may not have the income to hire personal assistants, plus the program itself is free. According to Allen they have participants ranging from their teens to their late 80s.

According to both Iliopoulos and Allen, the funding from the program largely comes from grants from the City of Toronto and public donations. However Tobias House regularly holds fundraisers. Coming up in the spring is the Keep on Swimming campaign that supports the swim program along with other programs.