Edmonton rec centres make a splash by offering aids to assist deaf swimmers

Nishan and Nirav Saggu work with an ASL interpreter during their swim lessons at the Meadows rec centre.  (Caitlin Hanson/CBC - image credit)
Nishan and Nirav Saggu work with an ASL interpreter during their swim lessons at the Meadows rec centre. (Caitlin Hanson/CBC - image credit)

Learning to swim can be a daunting task, but for the Saggu family, the rite of passage has been additionally frustrating.

Amandeep Saggu and her sons, six-year-old Nishan and five-year-old Nirav, are deaf. That means something like swimming lessons at a public pool can become an overwhelming experience.

"They feel like they're not prioritized. And they're like the bottom of the pack," Saggu said in an interview conducted through an American Sign Language interpreter. "They have to be patient. Try and figure things out. And it's not easy."

Now with the help of a city pilot program, they're getting some extra assistance: ASL interpreter Robyn Lavender.

She joins the boys in the pool at their weekly swim class, signing alongside their instructor and giving them freedom to learn like anyone else.

"It's been really wonderful for my sons. They know they get to come; they look forward to it," Saggu said. "Before that, there was a lot of frustration. And now they love coming."

Caitlin Hanson/CBC
Caitlin Hanson/CBC

The one-year pilot project, launched by the city in April 2022, provides access to communication services and technologies for people that are deaf or hard of hearing.

Eight families have signed up so far, but the city hopes to expand it into a permanent program.

A spokesperson for the city said the 2022 pilot cost about $12,500 and the city has $30,000 allocated to the pilot to support requests.

Program manager Heather Craig said it can be tailored to fit a variety of needs.

"We have some people who like to use interpreters and some people who like to use real-time captioners," Craig said.

"We've also had requests to just have additional staff come in and do more demonstrations. So it's really targeted to whatever works for that individual."

Lavender first learned sign language to communicate with her childhood friend. She was hired on a full-time contract to be an interpreter for this project.

A pool is different than her usual settings but her goals are the same.

"I think that deaf kids can do what any other kid can do. I think it's more a matter of feeling welcome in a space," Lavender said.

"Access is important so that deaf people feel like they can come and participate. They can come and feel a part of something, and feel like they are the same as anyone else. The only thing they can't do is hear."

Caitlin Hanson/CBC
Caitlin Hanson/CBC

Saggu said the new level of comfort provided by the interpreter has allowed her sons to excel in class.

"They have people to look up to. It's not just about the fact that they're deaf. They're there and they're participating and they can play and do the same things as the other kids."