University Community

Into the deep end of the pool: Gianna Petrella’s ‘Safe Swimming for All’ caters to children with disabilities

Learning how to swim can be a daunting proposition for a child. For those children with disabilities, the challenge of moving through water increases exponentially. One primary reason for this: Traditional swim-lesson programs often turn away these children because their staff lacks the knowledge or the necessary equipment.

Gianna Petrella, an undergraduate student in the Communication Sciences and Disorders program in OHIO’s College of Health Sciences and Professions, is looking to change that.

Petrella, who worked with children and adults with disabilities for five years in her native state of Pennsylvania, started a program in Athens called "Safe Swimming for All," targeted to children with disabilities. Launched in partnership with Beacon School and the Appalachian Family Center for Autism and Disability Resources and Education (AF-CADRE), the program made its debut in mid-January.


From left, Lindsay Schaeffer, Lea Morris, Hannah Beckman, Gianna Petrella
Safe Swimming for All instructors, from left, Lindsay Schaeffer, Lea Morris, Hannah Beckman, Gianna Petrella

The program’s origins

Petrella’s program had its beginnings while she was still on her high school swim team. She first began offering swim lessons through her swim club. Later, she also offered privately contracted lessons. But none of these lessons were focused to people with disabilities. As she investigated further, she found that children with disabilities were being underserved by most swim programs, in her own community and in swim programs everywhere.

“I realized that children with disabilities were not being given the same chance to participate in their community swim lessons — which their typically developing peers were able to be a part of,” Petrella said.

She then took the opportunity to volunteer, along with her swim team peers, at La Roche College in Pennsylvania for a swim program serving children with multiple disabilities.

“This was a recreational leisure program that gave the children a chance to be in the water,” she said. “It was a wonderful program, but there were no goals for the children to meet. It was more of a group event, not a learn-to-swim class.”

Petrella wanted to develop a swim program based on a philosophy that all children — regardless of abilities — can learn to swim. She further researched the topic, wrote a curriculum, and then presented that curriculum in a proposal to the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children, which accepted and implemented it. She, along with her team of instructors — which she recruited and trained — began implementing and teaching her new "Safe Swimming for All" curriculum.

The result? “The swimmers demonstrated amazing success!” Petrella said. “A young boy who had never entered the pool left our five-week program with emerging survival swimming skills. Another non-ambulatory child learned to sit on the side of the pool independently and use his body to jump in to his mother. This child is no longer passive at family swim outings but can rather participate with his mother to his fullest ability. These are just two of the success stories!”

Her "Safe Swimming for All" program was featured in newspaper articles and became well-known in the swim community. So much so that she was approached by the swim coach from Riverside, a neighboring district, who was looking for a swim instructor to teach two children with disabilities. Over the course of three summers, she grew the program to more than 50 students, all showing great progress with their goals.


Instructors work with children in the pool at Beacon School.

Exceeding expectations

When college beckoned, it was Ohio University that Petrella set her sights on — with the sole purpose of “being in the Communication Sciences and Disorders program, and everything it had to offer,” she said. “I was impressed by the academics and the campus.”

She began her college career at OHIO in the fall of 2020, but COVID-19 thwarted her intentions to bring her "Safe Swimming for All" program to the Athens area, at least for a while. “The idea of continuing my program was always in the back of my mind while being on campus, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed almost impossible to have a program like that with all of the restrictions that had been put into place,” she said.

Petrella persevered, however, and in September 2022 she felt the timing was right. She sent her "Safe Swimming for All" proposal to the Appalachian Family Center for Autism and Disability Resources and Education, which made the decision to host the program, providing funding and liability. Meanwhile, the Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities agreed to provide the necessary space at Beacon School.

The program, which initially opened to five children in the Athens community in January of this year, met with immediate success. Since that time, 12 children have enrolled in "Safe Swimming for All," and the program has exceeded even Petrella’s expectations.

“We have children ranging in abilities, ages and swimming experience,” Petrella said. “I have hired six instructors, one lifeguard and 17 volunteers from undergraduate majors across the University. They are all amazing, qualified and excited about this opportunity. And, of course, Beacon School and AF-CADRE have been very supportive of our endeavors!”

Support, fun and taking a chance

In January, College of Health Sciences and Professions Dean John McCarthy accepted Petrella’s invitation to attend a "Safe Swimming for All" session and came away very impressed with what he witnessed.

“For the swimmers, I witnessed some children who jumped right in and others who were tentative in leaving a parent,” he said. “Sometimes it was only for a brief moment, but I saw every swimmer take a chance and do something they hadn't done before in the water. That to me was a lesson in confidence — a belief that in that moment it was possible to try something and no matter what emotions were going on inside and whatever physical movements were or weren't cooperating, there was a will to act."

As to student volunteers, Dean McCarthy continued, “I saw teams of three to four students per swimmer who met each child and worked together in a group to provide support. Gianna let each volunteer know to speak up and share their ideas. The groups provided support and fun.”

For children with disabilities, Petrella’s "Safe Swimming for All" program has opened the door to possibilities — possibilities that just didn’t seem to be available to them before now.

“I believe that all children, regardless of abilities, can learn,” Petrella said. “It is with this philosophy that I have found that children will rise to the challenges and expectations set before them. I have taught some of the most complex children and have seen growth, progress and learning. It’s this philosophical belief that has become the foundation of my program.”

Petrella is awaiting word on funding for extending the program in the summer, fall and winter of 2023-24. Interested swimmers, parents, instructors and volunteers should reach out to Petrella here:

March 2, 2023
Greg Sharpless