Fear Of Water, Lack Of Access Contribute To Racial Drowning Disparities

Aug 26, 2019

Nearly 4,000 people die from drownings every year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s about 10 people a day. But the racial and ethnic disparities within those drownings are equally alarming.

The CDC has found that swimming pool drowning rates for black youth ages five to 19 are 5.5 times higher than whites in the same age group.

At the Rite-Hite YMCA in Brown Deer, kids taking part in their summer swim lessons.

Deonte and Jenny Tatum's daughter, Payten (left), eagerly jumps into the pool.
Credit Teran Powell

Deonte and Jenny Tatum are there with their daughter, Payten. They put her in lessons because when she was two, she nearly drowned.

"My wife was out of town when it happened. I heard how frightened she was," he shares. "... Ever since she’s come here, I’ve seen her grow not only as a swimmer, but I’ve seen her become more confident in other things too."

Jenny took swim lessons as a child, but Deonte, who is black, did not. While he was in college in Hawaii, Deonte says he would be out on the water with friends but was afraid to go out too far because he wasn’t as comfortable as they were. He says being exposed to water is an experience kids of color should have.

Carol Irwin has been investigating disparities in drowning rates between minority and white youth with a longitudinal study, which started a little over 10 years ago. USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport of swimming in the United States, commissioned the study.

She’s an associate professor of Physical Education Teacher Education in the School of Health Studies at the University of Memphis.

As for what contributes to these disparities, Irwin says: "Really the major reasons are that they were afraid; they hadn’t learned as children themselves — and these were parents ... They were very fearful of any kind of water. Some were so fearful, they didn’t even want to splash water on their face. So, that was a very inbred, very learned fear, and it was very prevalent, so prevalent that it was carried down into other generations."

READ: A historic look at race and swimming pools

Irwin’s study targeted underserved, low-income communities.

"African American respondents indicated that at about 69%, they either had no or low swimming ability," she explains. Low swimming ability means you can’t swim the length of the pool.

"So, 69% compares to about 58% Hispanic/Latino, and it also compares to about 42% white respondents. So, when you have that amazing amount of gap that’s definitely a significant problem," Irwin continues.

Kids watch as their instructor takes them one by one through floating lessons.
Credit Teran Powell

Parental encouragement, personal appearance, financial constraints, and access to facilities are other factors that can contribute to kids not getting into swimming, she says.

The latter is something Jacob Byrne agrees with. He’s the senior aquatics director for the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee. Byrne says there’s a lack of access to aquatics education as well as to pools in general.

"It’s amplified more often in urban areas, which tend to have higher minority populations, than rural or suburban areas. As budgets have been cut, then hours are reduced, programming is reduced, and neighborhood pools have closed. And as neighborhood pools have closed, then there’s been less opportunity and less access for all ages, all races, all ethnicities," he says.

But Byrne says the YMCA is working to remove barriers and increase access. For instance, financial assistance is available, and he says the YMCA works with school districts to offer water safety education.

"We are trying to have a program that is inclusive and regimented," he shares, "and that is going to have results."

The YMCA's swim lessons seem to be having results for Christine Wittwer’s sons, Matteo and Everett. She says she’s more comfortable with them being around water now. And Wittwer says, she's even started taking adult lessons so she could share in the experience with them.

Wittwer says of her oldest son Matteo: "I just want him to be safe around water; I think the older he gets, the more he’s going to be around water without me and I want him to be able to swim if he’s out with his friends or on a field trip."

She encourages parents to take swim lessons as well to try and get over their own fear of water.

Parents at the YMCA take on swim lessons with their toddlers.
Credit Teran Powell

And as far as decreasing drowning rates among minority kids and teens here in Milwaukee, water education and recreation are part of the water city agenda, with the goal of increasing access to swimming lessons in the community.

Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company.

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