For 19-year-old swim instructor Bridget Kennedy, learning that one of her students, a 15-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, had walked for the first time helped to reaffirm that she had chosen the right career path. Kennedy, a health science major and prospective adapted aquatics minor, who hopes to become an aquatic therapist one day, described her experience working with disabled kids as, “the most rewarding thing” she has ever done.
That is why she was so upset by Stony Brook’s recent decision to cut the adapted aquatics minor, which helps provide local disabled people with free swimming lessons.
As the school prepares to reopen the pool after five years, the program, which had been put on hold during that time, will not resume despite former promises from the university. The announcement has come as a shock to students and community members who believe in the rehabilitative powers of aquatic exercise.
For the nearly one in five Americans living with disabilities, getting the proper amount of exercise may prove a great challenge. For these people, “water is a game changer,” Andrea Salzman, founder of the Aquatic Resources Network, an organization that seeks to inform clinicians about aquatic therapy, said. “When you take away the water, you take away the capacity for [disabled] people to experience freedom.”
A study published in the Disability and Health Journal in 2010 examined the benefits of aquatic therapy in disabled children ages from the ages six t0 12. Out of the 16 children — whose wide range of disabilities included autism spectrum disorder, severe spinal injuries, down syndrome and cerebral palsy — 81.3 percent reported an increase in strength and endurance, and 87.5 percent reported an increase in self-confidence.
Stephanie Volpe, a Holbrook, New York resident and mother of two, saw firsthand the impact aquatic exercise can have after she enrolled her then nine-year-old son Christopher in Stony Brook’s adapted aquatics class back in 2009.
“It definitely helped him with pool safety,” said Volpe, something she never thought would be possible for her son, who has autism and muscle weakness due to complications during pregnancy
Since the program was put on hold, Volpe said the progress her son made has diminished to the point where she no longer feels comfortable letting him go in water over his head.
“When you take away skilled handlers… then you make it impossible [for disabled people] to be in the water because their family doesn’t know how to be safe oftentimes,” Salzman said. “Now you’ve removed one of the things that potentially affects quality of life.”
In the eyes of Stony Brook graduate Chris Lu, who took the last section of the adaptive aquatics class back in 2012, the program epitomized the university’s mission in that it went “Far Beyond.”
“It [gave] a sense of purpose and fulfilment at the end of the day as the students [had] a feeling of accomplishment knowing that they made a difference in someone’s life,” Lu said in an email.
As the founder of the program, Dr. Peter Angelo is a fervent advocate for the life-changing potential of adapted aquatics. Although Angelo, who has been out on medical leave since November 2014, was not available for comment, he expressed his opinion on the matter last month in a statement posted to a private Facebook group for families of the program’s participants.
“When I return to Stony Brook in the fall, my department will no longer exist, in spite of the 50 [plus] years I spent running one of the most unique and incredibly effective programs at the University… What a terrible shame that is and a terrible loss for the infants, children, and adults with disabilities whom we serviced for over 50 years! It is also a great loss to the nearly 1,000 students who signed up for our program’s classes yearly,” he wrote.
Although the the minor was created in 2003, this first-of-its-kind program can be traced back to 1966, when Stony Brook partnered with the local Red Cross to develop a swimming course for the disabled that could be taught at universities nationwide.
Kennedy said it was this groundbreaking approach to therapy that attracted her to Stony Brook in the first place, despite the fact that it was her second choice school.
Although the university has released no official statement on the minor’s cancellation, Kennedy said that an instructor who she has been in contact with told her that he had been let go, and contact information for instructors has been removed from the program webpage.
“It’s official,” she said. “It’s definitely happening, but the university is not telling the students and is not making it public.”
The Office of Campus Media Relations and the School of Health Technology and Management, which runs the program, did not provide a comment after repeated inquiries.
Meanwhile, Volpe said she was puzzled as to why the school had not explored other options to bring back the classes by potentially charging a small fee, especially considering she and many of the other parents receive funding from Medicaid to pay for programs like this one.
“My kid misses it,” she said. “He’s been asking for three years and he has cognitive issues. So for him it made a major impact in his life that he’s still asking to go back. His best friend also asks about it all the time asking when the pool is going to be open. I have to keep telling them I don’t know.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Bridget Kennedy as a volunteer swim instructor and stated that she was an adapted aquatics minor. Kennedy is a paid swim instructor, not a volunteer. She is also not a declared adapted aquatics minor, she is a prospective adapted aquatics minor.