What is visually impaired swimming?

Swimming is a great recreational and elite sport and is a fun way to increase positivity, sleep quality and mood, whilst also teaching life-saving water safety. From learning to swim, to being involved in swimming competitively, anyone can get involved.

How do I get involved with visually impaired swimming?

Any of your local public swimming pools should be able to make adequate adaptations for you to swim recreationally in the public sessions.

If you want to get involved in swimming recreationally, then a few recommendations can be made to be as independent as possible in the water:

  • Call ahead to your local leisure centre to make them aware of your visual impairment.
  • Alert the lifeguard so they can make any necessary changes to fully assist you with your independence. Adaptations can include using anti-turbulent ropes instead of ropes standard ropes, placing brightly coloured markers on the bottom of, and around the pool.
  • If swimming in a lane, count how many strokes it takes to reach a length in the pool. This will enable you to work out when you are approaching the end of the lane.
  • Familiarise yourself with the pool and swimming area - shallow/deep end, step position to and from the pool.
  • Place a brightly coloured marker, such as a beach towel or water bottle, at the end of the lane to help with turns and orientation in and around the pool.

There are many swimming clubs that are inclusive to individuals who are blind or partially sighted. Swimming with a club allows you to improve your technique and enter competitions if you want to. Swim England operates ‘Disability Hub Clubs’, which are clubs that are inclusive of everyone. The locations of these clubs can be found here: https://bit.ly/36BxyRD.

You can also search on the BBS Activity Finder: https://britishblindsport.org.uk/activity-finder/


The sport is adapted for people who are blind and partially sighted by using a sighted guide where appropriate, and by using a “tapper”. This is an experienced guide who is trained to observe the swimmer’s stroke and “tap” the swimmer with a long pole/ woggle to indicate the lane ending and the need to make a turn.

There is no standard “tapper” device – even at an elite level, swimmers must make their own. BBS suggest using a 4m retractable fishing pole, with a tennis ball covered in a deflated balloon (for waterproofing) attached to the end.

Pathways and Competition

There are five key steps on the pathway to becoming a para-swimmer.

  1. Get in touch and let us help with specific advice for you.
  2. Sign up for an assessment with Swim England qualified coaches at a Start Para-Swimming Centre.
  3. Find a club to train and compete with like-minded swimmers and para-swimmers.
  4. Apply for classification to compete in regional, national and international competitions.
  5. Set yourself goals and work hard with your coach to reach them.

You can read more about the talent pathway here: https://www.swimming.org/sport/england-programmes-para-swimming/

The first step for many swimmers is to compete in impairment-specific swimming championships, run by National Disability Sport Organisations. British Blind Sport run an annual Swim Gala – keep an eye on our social media and website for when our next event will be held.

This is the perfect place for newcomers to get a taste of competition, swimming alongside athletes with similar impairments.

If you are a member of Swim England through a club, swimmers with disabilities will be encouraged to compete alongside non-disabled swimmers in open meets from the Swim England Licensed Meets calendar.

It is a requirement of regional and national meets in the Swim England calendar to include multi-classification para-swimming competitions. Multi-classification races, known as MC races, are where para-swimmers compete against rivals from different classifications and receive points scored based on how close they are to the existing British record. Positions are determined based on relative performance rather than time.


Recreationally, you do not need a sight classification to compete in open swim galas, as there is no distinction between blind and partially sighted people and sighted peers.

To compete in regional or national para-swimming meets, you will need a classification. Para-swimmers compete against rivals from different classifications and receive a points score based on how close they are to the existing British record.

In elite competition (e.g. international level and the Paralympics) there are three visual impairment classes. These are called S11, S12 and S13. They range from very low or no visual ability in the S11 class to the least severe visual impairment in the S13 class.

To ensure fairness, all athletes in the S11 class wear blackened goggles. A tapper – a team member holding a long pole – will tap them when they are approaching the wall. S12 and S13 swimmers can choose whether they use a tapper.

For more information on classifications please visit the British Blind Sport classification page: https://britishblindsport.org.uk/educationandresearch/classifications/.

For information on international classification please visit the IBSA classification webpage: https://ibsasport.org/fair-sport/classification/for-athletes-and-teams/

Swimming Resource

This swimming resource helps coaches support people with a visual impairment in and around the swimming pool. The extensive resource provides recommendations from making swimming sessions accessible to how to accommodate guide dogs at the leisure centre. The resource also offers support to parents and guardians of children with sight loss.

Download the PDF version of Visually Impaired Friendly Swimming
Download the Word version of Visually Impaired Friendly Swimming

Swimming e-Learning Course

Developed in partnership with the Amateur Swimming Association. i-Learn aims to provide support, ideas and guidance for anyone involved with swimming on how to include people with a visual impairment more effectively and is free to complete. Link: https://32982um1rt12wbtsb27nbp1a-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/VisuallyImpairedFriendlySwimming.pdf

Useful Links:

Swim England website: https://www.swimming.org/

Swim England para-swimming: https://www.swimming.org/sport/para-swimming-swim-england/

Swim England para-swimming registration: https://www.swimming.org/sport/para-swimming-advice/

Swim England e-learning: https://www.swimming.org/ios/course/3072

World Para Swimming: https://www.paralympic.org/swimming