Swimming Rules

Competition rules for athletes with disabilities would be the same as those for all athletes unless the athlete’s impairment doesn’t allow the athlete to complete the stroke correctly.

  • Athletes without function in the hips or legs might not be able to complete a breaststroke kick. In those cases they must drag their legs. Athletes with cerebral palsy who may not have the coordination to complete the kick must show intent to kick or drag their legs (a scissor kick would be okay in this instance)
  • Athletes without one or both hands are unable to do a two hand touch in butterfly or breaststroke
  • Athletes with one upper limb shorter than the other will not be able to touch with both hands in butterfly, but they should still bring their arms together simultaneously
  • Athletes may start from the water, the wall or the blocks, but should be given time to get into starting position prior to race; a coach may help the athlete get into starting position
  • Competition suits must be regular racing suits, but may be modified for fit based on disability. A floating or “wetsuit” is never legal in competition.
  • Paddles, fins, braces or tape are not allowed in competition
Modifications for Athletes with Visual Impairments


  • With an audible starting system, no modification is usually required for a swimmer who is blind or has vision loss
  • A swimmer may require assistance getting to and on the block
  • Should the swimmer feel insecure starting from the block or deck, an in the water start is allowed

Lane Lines/Markers

  • Bright colored lane lines or markers on the lane lines may be of assistance. Swimmers will run into lane lines a lot while learning
  • Sharp/rough lane lines may be painful and cause the swimmer frustration


  • A bright colored marker may be placed on or near the wall for beginning teaching purposes to locate the wall. As they develop, the swimmer should work on their stroke count
  • A swimmer who is blind or has vision loss is permitted to have personal assistant (“tappers” who use poles with soft tipped ends to tap the swimmer as notification of turns and the finish)
  • Sound devices shall not be used
  • It is the swimmer’s responsibility to provide the tapper(s) who will be positioned within the confines of the swimmer’s lane at the ends of the pool
Modifications for Athletes with Hearing Impairments


  • Swimmers with hearing impairments require a visual starting signal (strobe light or starter’s arm signals)
  • The referee may reassign lanes within the swimmer’s heat by exchanging one lane for the other so that the strobe light or starter’s arm signals can more readily be seen
  • The starter shall advise the swimmers about the location of the strobe light and the light will be located where the swimmers can clearly see it for the start
  • For backstroke starts, the light should be positioned so that the swimmers do not have to turn heir heads to look backwards
  • A false start rope is required in the event of a recall, provided the meet host is notified by the entry deadline that an athlete with a hearing impairment will be participating
Modifications for Athletes with Physical Disabilities


  • Swimmers with disabilities may take longer to assume their starting position or have difficulty holding the starting platform or pool end
  • The athletes may need assistance from someone on the deck to maintain a starting position or they may use a modified starting position on the blocks, deck or in the water
  • Swimmers shall use a forward start for freestyle, breaststroke and butterfly
  • The following modifications may be allowed by the referee
    • The swimmer may start from a sitting position on the block or on the deck
    • The swimmer may assume a starting position in the water (with or without assistance)
    • If the swimmer cannot use a hand and/or foot to maintain contact with the wall, some other part of the body may be used
    • For breaststroke and butterfly, after the start and after each turn, a swimmer who is unable to push off with the leg(s) may perform one arm stroke that need not be simultaneous or on the horizontal plane to attain the breast position


  • In judging the stroke or kick of a swimmer with a physical disability , the referee and stroke & turn judge should follow the general rule that if a part of the body is absent or cannot be used, it is not judged; if it is used during the stroke or kick, it should be judged in accordance with the USA Swimming Rules and Regulations
  • Judgments should be made based on the actual rule, not on the swimmer’s technique. For example, the breaststroke swimmer with one arm or leg shorter than the other, may have a non-symmetrical stroke or kick, but as long as the arm or leg action is simultaneous, it would meet that portion of the rule
  • No flotation devices should be permitted


  • Touches shall be judged in the same manner as strokes and kicks, on the basis of the arm(s) and/or hand(s) that the swimmer can use
  • In breaststroke and butterfly events, the competitor must reach forward as if attempting a simultaneous two hand touch
  • When a swimmer has a different arm length, only the longer arm must touch the wall, but both arms must be stretched forward simultaneously
  • Swimmers with no arms or with upper limbs too short to stretch above the head may touch the wall with any part of the upper body.


  • Relay swimmers who cannot exit the water immediately may be allowed to remain in the lane until all relays have finished so long as they do not interfere with the other swimming or the timing equipment

Practice Accommodations

  • Use equipment such as fins or paddles to help the athlete make intervals (different types of fins to accommodate the athletes’ impairments)
  • Have the swimmers without disabilities attempt to swim like the athletes with disabilities to get a better understanding
  • Modify the distance the athlete with a disability swims, but keep the same interval as the team
  • Spend an extra 10 to 15 minutes before or after practice developing ideal technique or to just try new things for the athlete with a disability
  • Challenge the athlete like you would the rest of the team, and make adjustments for the athlete’s impairment
  • Make the athlete as independent as possible

Get to know all swimmers on the team

  • Learn about the swimmer’s reasons for swimming
  • Observe the swimmer’s technical skills, fitness levels, communication skills, and maturity level
  • When appropriate, learn about the swimmer’s disability and ask the swimmer or parents to teach you
  • Use simulations to help coaches and swimmers develop a better understanding of disabilities. For example:
    • Vision impairment- place waxed paper inside the swim goggles
    • Hearing impairment- wear ear plugs
    • Loss of leg function- hold a swim fin between the legs above the ankle or increase difficulty by wearing long pants
    • Loss of arm function- hold a swim fin between the upper arm and chest

Have the same expectations

  • Include the swimmer with a disability in all instruction and activities, making modifications as needed
  • Expect the swimmer with a disability to comply with all the expectations regarding team policies and meet participation
  • Challenge the swimmer with a disability to perform in practices and meets just as you challenge swimmers without disabilities 

Use the same principles of stroke technique and training

  • Use experimentation and coaching expertise to determine:
    • Best head/body positions
    • Effective propulsion techniques
    • Ways to decrease resistance
  • Use the same principles of training for swimmers with disabilities as you do for athletes without disabilities (i.e. improving fitness, energy systems, etc.)
  • Pay attention to every swimmer
  • Provide coaching to every swimmer
  • Make efforts to ensure the safety of every swimmer
Effective Communication

Facilitate understanding, friendships, and sportsmanship

  • Set an example of acceptance and understanding
  • Team meetings should include topics such as acceptance, respect, responsibility, and sportsmanship

Use a variety of communication methods

  • Verbal communication refers to speaking and sign language
  • Non-verbal communication includes gestures, demonstrations, signage/white boards, etc.
  • Talk, listen, and observe
  • Check that athletes understand
  • When appropriate, ask teammates to help each other understand and follow coaching instructions

Communication Cues

  • Physical Disabilities
    • Move/kneel so that you are at the swimmers’ eye level, especially when speaking with an athlete who uses a wheelchair or athletes with short stature
  • Vision Impairments
    •  Use rich, verbal descriptions
    • Physically assist swimmers to achieve correct technique
  • Hearing Impairments
    • Face the swimmer
    • Use a normal voice
    • Use gestures or signs
    • Use written instructions

Sharing team information with families

  • Be aware of communication preferences of swimmers and their families
  • Use multiple methods of communication when disseminating information such as team policies, practice schedules, and meet announcements
    • Written handouts
    • Club website
    • Social networking websites
    • Telephone trees

Develop consistency across coaching staff

  • Communicate regularly amongst coaching staff, athletes can get frustrated when their coaches are not on the same page

Accommodations for athletes with disabilities

  • The term reasonable accommodations means practical, effective, common-sense ways to help swimmers with disabilities
  • Collaborate with the swimmer with the disability and family to identify and provide appropriate, no/low cost, low hassle accommodations that work
  • An accommodation could be a personal assistant who helps at meets or practices by:
    • Helping swimmers enter or exit the pool
    • Assisting swimmers with cognitive disabilities to understand meet routines or coaches instruction
    • Tapping blind swimmers prior to turns and finishes
    • Using alternative methods of communication for swimmers with hearing impairments
    • Helping swimmers with behavioral disorders to cope with challenging situations

*note: USA Swimming rules specify that personal assistants may not coach unless they are coach members

Discuss conduct of swimming events with the meet referee

  • Swimmers with disabilities competing in time-appropriate events such as swimming the 50/100 during a 200 event or the 500/1000 during a 1650
  • Special seeding arrangements
    • A swimmer with a hearing impairment may see the starter and strobe light better from certain lanes
    • An outside lane may be more efficient for a swimmer with a disability to enter/exit the pool
    • Personal assistants who help with meet routines, tapping, interpreting water entry/exit
    • Visual starting signals or alternate strobe light placement for swimmers with hearing impairments


Guideline Table of Contents
State Models

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