Braille Monitor                                                    June 2008

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Swimming in the Lanes

by James Fetter

From the Editor: Several months ago we realized that exciting things were happening for blind people in the world of competitive swimming at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. James Fetter, an NFB member, was a graduate student in political science. He had narrowly missed the cut for the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, Australia, and was still a dedicated and serious swimmer. We came across an online article describing an invention to help blind swimmers and any others who had trouble seeing line markers or the end of the pool. Because Annie Sawicki, a Notre Dame swimming coach had interested colleagues in trying to invent a solution to this swimming problem, we turned to James Fetter to ask him for a brief article describing this equipment. Here is his explanation followed by the online article from USA Swimming:

As with many inventions, the device now known as AdaptTap or Touch Tap arose out of a certain amount of necessity. Annie Sawicki, the coach of the Masters Swim Team at Notre Dame, found herself coaching at first two and then an increasing number of blind swimmers, several of whom had competed at the elite level in the past. The first two blind Masters swimmers, both students at Notre Dame who had chosen to attend the school for reasons not related to swimming, were internationally ranked against other blind swimmers. Ashley Nashleanas, a Notre Dame undergrad and science major, had competed in the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece, and had some interest in trying out for the 2008 team in Beijing. After my near miss for the Paralympics in Australia, I saw Masters swimming as an opportunity to stay in shape and to leave open the possibility of again competing at the elite level at some point in the future, perhaps in the 2012 Paralympics to be held in London. Needless to say, both of us practiced at a high level of intensity and thus needed a reliable means of determining when we had arrived at the walls at the ends of the pool.

Sawicki soon discovered that the traditional method of alerting blind swimmers that they were approaching the wall, a method called “tapping,” in which a sighted person stands at each end of the pool holding a pole with a tennis ball attached to one end and hits the swimmer on the head or body when it is time to turn, had its drawbacks. Finding enough reliable people willing to tap during each swim practice, often without much or any financial compensation, was difficult, to say the least. This led Sawicki to wonder whether the human tapper could be replaced by a device of some sort that would not be subject to human error, expect to be paid, or have scheduling conflicts.

In the fall of 2006 she approached several engineers at Notre Dame with the concept, and, after several false starts and a failed attempt to develop an electronic device, a group of engineers in industrial design came up with the AdaptTap system, a series of flexible plastic rods with balls on one end and brackets on the other that attach to a standard lane line.

The device serves two purposes: to keep the swimmer in the middle of the lane and, most important, to alert him or her of the approaching wall, allowing space and time for a safe and legal turn without sighted assistance. Shorter rods attached at regular intervals to both lane lines do the former, and longer rods forming a gate of sorts near each end of the pool do the latter. Since each rod is flexible and can be attached wherever the swimmer sees fit, the device does not impede the swimmer’s progress. If a blind swimmer is required to share a lane with several other swimmers, only the rods at either end of the pool would be attached, which would prevent interference with the other swimmers in the lane.

Designing the device was only half the battle, however. Finding a company willing to manufacture it in the absence of the assurance of a large market was a major challenge, as was rounding up a representative cross -section of blind swimmers willing and able to test the prototype of the device that was constructed by the engineering team out of whatever spare plastic they could find.

Like a pit -bull Sawicki refused to let go of the project, and her persistence eventually paid off. In April of this year the device was actually patented, and Kiefer, a large aquatics company based in Chicago, agreed to manufacture the device. Adolph Kiefer, founder of the company, is now ninety and uses a wheelchair. He is personally committed to helping people with disabilities to stay active. If all goes according to plan, the AdaptTap system should soon be on the market and available to all blind swimmers, whether they be elite Paralympians who want the flexibility that comes with training independently or beginners and fitness swimmers who would prefer not to collide with the lane lines or the wall.

On February 22, 2008, USA Swimming, an online publication, carried a story about the effort at Notre Dame to improve practice and competition for blind swimmers. Meantime, because some of the swimmers in the Notre Dame program were members of the NFB, Annie Sawicki came to Baltimore to describe the AdaptTap system to NFB officials. Unable to commit funding resources to the program, they offered encouragement and contacts to Ms. Sawicki and her colleagues, as reported above. T, they have now solved many of the production problems and plan to be at the convention in Dallas to demonstrate the device and work with blind swimmers and would-be swimmers. (See the announcement about their plans for convention in the Federation Family section of Monitor Miniatures.) Here is the article about this exciting new invention that appeared in USA Swimming on February 22, 2008:

Finding Their Way–Sightless Swimmers at Notre Dame Hope to Advance Their Sport

by Diane Krieger Spivak

Irish Aquatics aquatics swimmer Ashley Nashleanas works with Fernando Carvalho on the AdaptTap system designed for blind swimmers. (Photo provided by Annie Sawicki)When Notre Dame Irish aquatics coach Annie Sawicki found herself with ten visually impaired swimmers in her masters swim program, she quickly found out what they already knew. Swimming blind presents its own set of problems. Drifting to the sides of the lane and not knowing when you get to the wall are the most challenging.

Sawicki found that there was nothing on the market to guide blind swimmers in the pool, so two- and -a -half years ago she started working on a device that would keep the swimmers on track, as well as enable them to know when to turn. “At practice they were hitting their heads,” Sawicki said. “Some of them were used to their home clubs, where their parents would tap for them.” A tapper stands at the end of the pool holding a pole with a tennis ball attached and taps a blind swimmer on the head or shoulder when he or she nears the wall.

After a series of electronic devices failed, Sawicki was referred to Prof. Paul Down, of the university’s Industrial Design Department, who enlisted his graduate students to help solve the problem. The result, which has a provisional patent and could be ready for production in a few months, is the AdaptTap, a navigation system for visually impaired swimmers. Sawicki, who coaches masters Paralympic swimmers, says her swimmers helped in the design process, putting different versions to the test. Even the sighted industrial design students who work on the product blindfolded themselves, jumped in the pool, and tried it out.

One of Sawicki’s swimmers and Notre Dame student Ashley Nashleanas, a record holder who swam at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, is featured in a video clip demonstrating the AdaptTap on the Irish Masters Website. “It’s a very simple tactile device that works on the principle of curb feelers,” said Down, who says the device does for blind swimmers what a backstroke flag does for backstrokers. The lane gate system features floating touchpoints with sponge-type balls on the ends that extend out from the lane lines to guide the swimmer.

The design team is working with the National Federation of the Blind and will present the AdaptTap at the Federation’s national convention this summer. “Right now we’re sourcing the most cost-effective way to get a system together that would be reliable,” Down said. “We have concepts in mind for how it could be made commercially, but it requires injection-molded parts. Down says the design team is currently looking for funding and for companies to manufacture the device.

PhD candidate James Fetter, who narrowly missed the 2000 Parlaympics in Sydney as a high school senior, is one of Sawicki’s masters swimmers. “I think the device has a lot of potential, especially at the end of the lane. It gives an indication where to turn, which definitely makes it easier than in previous years trying to get tappers at practice, which you really need at a competitive level,” Fetter said. “The problem when you’re going full speed, you’re thinking about hitting the wall. I think it’s definitely a good training tool that will help me swim on my own whenever I feel like it.”

Lori Miller, thirty-two, a 1997 Notre Dame alum who bicycled in Sydney in 2000, connected with Irish Masters last year after she decided to do triathlons. “I’ve swum with the device, I’ve tested it, and I love it,” said Miller, who’s been blind since age two. “Now that I know something like that exists, it’s really hard to jump in the pool to do laps without it,” she said. “It provides orientation throughout the whole lap so I’m not moving back and forth. I can instantly make adjustments to get back to the middle. “It eliminates the guesswork,” Miller said. “No more jammed hands and fingers, bumping your head, no more counting strokes and backing off at the end because you know you’re getting close to the wall but you’re not quite sure. The device takes care of all that. It just takes all the limitations off, and I’m for being as independent as possible. With the device I’m able to concentrate on swimming faster again.”

Down believes the device has the potential to help even fully sighted swimmers with contacts or eyeglasses, those affected by chlorination, backstrokers, or even any swimmer since the eyes go in and out of the water while swimming. Sawicki hopes the device can help other college swimmers so they don’t have to start at ground zero like we did. “Not every blind swimmer is going to be a Jessica Long or go to the Paralympics,” Sawicki said. “We want to reach out to everyone in the country who is blind who is going to use swimming as fitness. If the product fits the bill and can help elite swimmers go faster for training purposes, that’s fantastic.”

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