Fearne Wheeler

Learning to swim when you are profoundly deaf

Learning to swim is a rite of passage for most children but throw additional challenges into the mix and the journey becomes that little bit harder. We’ve been speaking to Kimberley (mum) and Fearne, who is severe to profoundly deaf, about their learn to swim journey and why you shouldn’t let these challenges stop you from learning an important life skill.

Kimberley tells their story: “Fearne was just 12 weeks old when she first started swimming lessons and was always very happy in the pool. Her initial lessons gave her huge amounts of confidence in the pool, and she learnt some basic skills and important life-saving skills.

Fearne is severe to profoundly deaf; we found this out before she was two weeks old, and she has worn hearing aids since she was five weeks old. Her hearing aids have allowed Fearne to access sound and have enabled her to learn and develop like any other child of her age. However, they do not produce waterproof hearing aids, so Fearne is unable to wear her aids when swimming or playing in/near water. Without the ability to hear and be warned of risk/danger when near water we felt even more strongly that swimming was a skill she must have.

When Fearne first started swimming I was always in the pool with her so although she was unable to hear, I was able to communicate with her and explain what we would be doing. This worked well but she completed the course the week she turned four, and we had to move on to the next stage. She was now of an age where I wouldn’t be able to go into the pool with her. We attended as spectators to watch my friend’s children swim to see various lessons and assess how well Fearne would cope, but it was clear to me that a group lesson would not be suitable at this point and it was also not going to be ideal having the instructor on the poolside rather than in the pool.

I spoke to various people trying to seek out lessons that would suit her and her hearing loss but could not find anything for deaf children. We finally found Terri. Fearne attended weekly private lessons with Terri who was in the pool with her. Fearne and Terri developed their own sign language, so she understood what she needed to be doing. Terri also used visual aids like Barbie dolls to show Fearne what to do and Fearne quickly learnt all four swimming strokes. We were amazed at Fearne’s progression and then came Covid.

Fearne was out of the pool for nearly a year and a half. We tried another place that offered 1:1 lessons. As pleased as we were to see Fearne back in the pool, their instructor struggled a little with Fearne’s hearing loss and communicating with her. We had been on a waiting list with Places Leisure to join Terri’s group class, which we finally got into in September 2021. Neither Terri nor Fearne had forgotten the signs they used to communicate, Terri always makes sure she has Fearne’s eye contact when explaining what to do and she explained to the other children in the class that Fearne cannot hear and requested them to assist by tapping Fearne to tell her to go or stop.

Fearne is now in Year 3 at school. Part of the curriculum is to learn swimming. If she had not had the opportunity to learn to swim prior to this, Fearne would have really struggled. She is a worrier about most things. When we told her she was going swimming with her school she had concerns about where they were swimming, how they were getting there, who would be with them, was it the whole class, getting changed, eating lunch, where her hearing aids would go and when she could put them back in, but…she could not wait to get into the pool and enjoy swimming.

We were so proud of Fearne winning the Swimmer of the Year award, she has little to no hearing without her hearing aids. She has to concentrate more than most to understand what she is being instructed to do and she doesn’t always get it right but she’s enjoying herself. She’s trying her hardest and it’s lovely that she loves her lessons. She’s happy, confident and most importantly safe when in the water.”

We asked Fearne some quick-fire questions about her experience of swimming lessons with Places Leisure, here is what she said:

What do you love about your swimming lessons?
I just love being in the pool and swimming underwater.

What is your favourite activity you do in lessons?
Butterfly legs because it’s like being a mermaid.

Have you been swimming anywhere else outside of your lessons?
Lots of places, Spectrum, the beach, Centre Parcs where they have loads of slides!

Are there any other water-based activities you would like to try?
I’ve seen synchronised swimming on TV. I like being underwater and I do gymnastics and dancing so maybe I could try that.

Your swimming teacher, Terri, is really pleased with the progress you’ve made. What are you most proud of achieving in swimming so far?
Getting my medal and certificate for Swimmer of the Year.

And, what swimming skill would you really like to be able to learn in the future?
I’m a bit worried about doing a forward roll in the pool, as when I tried it once, water went up my nose which was horrible but I’d really like to be able to do it one day.

Kimberley and Fearne’s story is a great example of how to overcome barriers and how, with a little perseverance, you can see the rewards that learning to swim can bring to a family. Our centres offer a range of different lesson types, and we are always happy to discuss different needs and try to find a way to help whatever the challenge.

If you are interested in finding out more about swimming lessons with Places Leisure please get in touch.