CAUSES WEEK

Helping the disabled gain confidence in the pool

PRISCILLA Yap had never been able to submerge her head in water.

The 14-year-old, who suffers from mild autism, had only ever ventured as far as to swim while keeping her head above water.

But thanks to a new social enterprise, instructors got her used to having water splashed in her face, building up her confidence until she could submerge her face.

In September, the St Andrew's Autism School pupil began taking swimming classes with SwimChamps Kinesis, which offers the disabled, the elderly and other marginalised groups the same access and opportunities to take part in sports.

Priscilla's mother, Mrs Christina Yap, 45, said the swimming instructor was "not just patient but also understood the underlying sensory issues".

Her 10-year-old brother James, who suffers from Noonan syndrome - a disorder that stunts growth and affects attention and coordination - also takes classes with SwimChamps. Mrs Yap expressed relief that the instructors were trained to handle special needs children.

"It's about being able to participate in an activity," she explained why she wanted her children to learn how to swim. She also wanted them to learn water safety.

SwimChamps co-founder and former national softball player John Tan, 50, agreed. "It's a basic skill everybody should learn. We should be looking at inclusion - the abled, the disabled, the elderly, the less fortunate."

In March, Mr Tan, along with MrBen Ang, formerly of the Singapore Disability Sports Council, set up the swimming school.

It organises group lessons at public pools, and group and private lessons elsewhere, with fees ranging from $18 to $95.

But SwimChamps is hoping for a more permanent base and has approached the Singapore Sports Council and the Ministry of Social and Family Development for aid.

The social enterprise has five full-time staff, one full-time instructor and two part-time instructors.

Four of its 16 students have special needs. No elderly students have signed up for courses yet.

Mr Tan described how he was inspired by disabled athletes and their perseverance. He invited Paralympian Yip Pin Xiu, 20, to come on board and she now helps out as a business partner.

The gold medal winner said: "Without swimming, I wouldn't be what I am today. There are things you don't pick up at school."

Mr Tan added that he hoped more people would take advantage of the inclusive classes. "We want to reach out and touch lives."

LESLIE KAY LIM

For more information, see http://swimchamps.org