Feeling a Lil Bit Nekkid

Back before my memory was fully functional I belonged to an Easter Seals swim group. A group of kids with varying disabilities, a parent, and sometimes their siblings would get together once a week to swim and do water-related activities. It was really during this time that my love for swimming and being around water began. The staff and volunteers at Easter Seals were equipped and trained to work with multiple disabilities, the point, from what I remember, was to emphasize the therapeutic benefits of being in a liberating and "weight-less" environment.
And while I don't remember the specifics of this swim group, I do remember that it was one of the few times (if not only times) where I was immersed in a 'level playing field' with other kids my age who were also disabled. Some may have had tubes coming out of their stomachs, some may have also had O.I., others may have had surgical scars down their backs or arms, there were arms and legs that flapped uncontrollably, limbs that curved in every which way, necks that struggled to hold up heads.. but somehow, in the water, none of that mattered.

I remember that I was excited to go to the swim group each week. I looked forward to changing into my bathing suit at the Marriott Hotel where it was held, I couldn't wait for my mom to blow-up my Little Mermaid themed swimmies for my arms. I absolutely loved feeling free alongside them, with the other kids who, like me, couldn't conceptualize what it was we were so thrilled by - but we just felt it and through the bubbles we just knew what a difference being together in the water made.

Years passed and I grew-up, funding was cut, I fell out of my high chair and wound up in a body cast for half a year - several events led up to my slow phasing out of the Easter Seals swim group. By the time I was in middle school my parents were unable to find an Easter Seals swim program for me, so enrolled my older brother and I into swimming lessons at the local YMCA.
My parents understood the risks they were taking. The class would be taught by a YMCA staff person who probably didn't have any of the same training as the Easter Seals swim program teachers did, my parents also understood that the kids in the class would be 'normal.' I'm sure that they told me all of this and in my 11 year-old way of understanding things, I probably just shrugged it off not understanding the implications of what any of that would mean. In my mind I thought I go to a school with all these regular kids so what's the big deal with a once a week swim class? I found out soon enough.

"Okay everyone we're going to start off in the shallow end of the pool..." The instructor said. And with one hand along the wall the entire class began strutting down to the other end of the pool. I sat there on the pool deck, uncertain of what to do, and feeling incredibly vulnerable in too many ways for me to count. The instructor looked at me and asked if he could pick me up and carry me down to the other end of the pool. I shrugged and nodded.
For the rest of the lesson I remember wishing that I had more clothes on than just my bathing suit, wishing that my mother had been allowed to stay, shying away in terror into the corner when we practiced our kicks. When the class was over we had 10 min to ourselves for what was called "Free Swim." Kids jumped out of the pool, grabbed at kick boards, noodles, diving rings, and squirt toys and plunged after them.

"What happened to your legs?"
"How come it looks like you have two knees on one leg?"
"Why is your chest bone sticking out like that?" 
"Why did the teacher carry you?" 
Before I knew what I had gotten myself into a small group of kids had surrounded me. I hadn't come to class in my wheelchair. Hadn't been allowed to explain anything as I usually did at the start of a school year. I was just a kid, naked in a bathing suit - and O.I.'s classic symptoms stuck out like sore thumbs.

The point of this story isn't to throw more distance between the 'disabled world' and the 'normal world.' In fact it's to do the exact opposite! Those years (yes, I continued those YMCA swimming classes..) that I spent in those classes allowed me to literally grow tougher skin. Albeit it may have been somewhat brutal and a load of reality for an 11 year-old to handle, but it's something my parents could never have taught me because they're my parents. It's not something any amount of teasing from my brothers could have taught me because they are my brothers. In school kids are not as nearly naked as they are in a swim class, and I was usually always around the protective wing of an aide. It took total strangers, peers, and a level playing field that was provided by the water in order for me to truly understand what it means when I said to them:

"My bones are fragile, I was born this way but I can do everything you guys do as long as it's in the water. I'll race you to the other end?" 

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