Freestyle Aquatics for people with disabilities begins
LANI ROSE R DIZON
DOHA FREESTYLE Aquatics, the only programme of its kind in Qatar which was designed to introduce people with disabilities to swimming, snorkelling and scuba diving, was launched in Doha on Saturday.
To start with, as many as 15 people with Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, polio and visual impairments, including students from the Shafallah Center for Children with Special Needs and Al Noor Institute for the Blind, took part in the first two-day Freestyle Aquatics’ Doha Dive Challenge which concluded on Saturday. The event, which was held at the American School of Doha’s outdoor pool area, was part of the Freestyle Aquatics’ official launch in Qatar.
Founded by Kathleen Bates, who is currently the only certified diver instructor for people with disabilities in Qatar, the Freestyle Aquatics aims to create and implement a world-class adaptive scuba diving and swimming programme in the country.
According to statistics, the number of people with disabilities in Qatar stood at 10,174 in 2010 and was estimated at 11,191 in 2011. At 10 percent per annum increment as suggested by the United Nations, it is estimated that the population of people with disabilities in Qatar would grow to about 21,000 by 2017.
With this, the Freestyle Aquatics aims to seek, enrol and train the growing number of people with disabilities in Qatar through customised underwater programmes to benefit them.
Dr Saif al Hajri, vice-chairman of Shafallah Center for Children with Special Needs and general supervisor at Al Noor Institute for the Blind, also attended the event.
Speaking to Qatar Tribune, Bates said, “Most of the participants today have been told that they can’t do this because they’re blind or they’re on a wheelchair.
But, we can show them what they can actually achieve. Being under water makes everybody equal.
And under water they see what they can do, and that they have no limits.” Bates, who is also an employee at the Qatar Foundation and who works for HEC-Qatar, has been working with people with disabilities in sports for the past 15 years.
She said that the Freestyle Aquatics programme is open to all people with disabilities between the age of eight and 65. A medical check-up is also compulsory.
Tom Wyssenbach, a certified disabled diving instructor from Switzerland and Jojo Musa, a swimming instructor in Qatar, are assisting Bates in the programme.
Speaking about his first scuba diving experience, 18-year-old Qatari Abdul Mahsen al Mouri, who is blind since birth, said, “At first, I was both upset and afraid. I was asking myself how can I swim and dive. I couldn’t even see anything.
But then with the help of the trainers everything went well. I stayed underwater for more than an hour and it was really interesting.
Being blind was not a problem because I was able to use my other senses to enjoy the moment. I am looking forward to trying it again.” Misalam el Tiyeri, a 15-year-old student with cerebral palsy, could barely control his tight and stiff body in his wheelchair. But inside the water, little Tiyeri was free to move without any brace or wheelchair attached to him. His face was beaming with happiness.
Tiyeri’s trainer, Sami Mohammed, a physiotherapist at Shafallah, said, “You have less weight underwater. Events such as these are important as it integrate them into the society. The students now know that they are not isolated from the community.” Bates also said, “The first thing that we teach them is just to relax and let their bodies feel the water and support them. In the water, they are able to move in a way which they usually can’t on a wheelchair. It improves their flexibility, balance and agility.
Mentally, they’re gaining selfconfidence, and this is a fun thing to do socially with family and friends.” According to Dr Saif al Hajri, there were plans to include the programme at Al Noor Institute and Shafallah Center and at the School for the Deaf in Doha.
“We will talk with the swimming federation in Qatar to help us include people with special needs in their activities. They have the right to compete in their events,” he added.
The Freestyle Aquatics is funded by the Vodafone World of Difference Programme. The team which also includes Taha Quresi, Muhaibbah Karim and Seema Vinod are currently on the look-out for a permanent location. The Freestyle Aquatics also plans to hold another major event in October and some smaller events in the next few months.