Norma and Malcom Baker Recreation Grant funds swimming lessons for the autism community in Baltimore
May 19, 2021
In April, the League for People with Disabilities – a non-profit committed to helping individuals gain independence, increase self-sufficiency and improve quality of life - announced that the Baltimore Civic Fund, in collaboration with the Mayor’s Commission on Disabilities (MCD) of Baltimore City, was an Autism Speaks 2021 Norma and Malcolm Baker Recreation grant recipient.
As a commission within the Baltimore City Office of Equity and Civil Rights, the mission of the MCD is to remove barriers and promote equal rights and opportunities for individuals with disabilities, one of which includes access to public pools and water safety instruction. In Baltimore City, the generational impact of segregated pools and beaches has created a significant disparity in swimming participation among the black community. The difference is even more significant for individuals with disabilities and even greater for those with autism.
“This is an issue that really hits home with me because my oldest son has autism,” said Sharonda Huffman, Accessibility and Compliance Coordinator for the Office of Equity and Civil Rights for the Mayor’s Commission on Disabilities of Baltimore City. “Through my membership in Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc., I have become educated on the importance of swimming and water safety for African Americans and people with autism.”
Before the Civil Rights Act in 1964, public spaces, explicitly swimming pools, were largely inaccessible to Blacks and people with disabilities based on the premise that it would promote disorder and racial conflict. Even after the law was passed supporting desegregation of public accommodations, tactics were employed to maintain existing barriers, such as filling pools in, privatizing various forms of recreation, and creating membership clubs that charged fees.
The Baker Recreation Grant will subsidize free swimming lessons for individuals with autism in and around the city of Baltimore. The collaborative effort by MCD, League for People with Disabilities and the Alpha Alpha Sigma (Baltimore, MD) Chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc., whose unique partnership with USA Swimming, aims to increase swim participation and decrease drowning rates in the local community. Sharonda hopes partnering with a national organization like USA Swimming will increase exposure of this important issue.
“As the Accessibility and Compliance Coordinator, my role is to improve accessibility for residents with disabilities. Part of that, has been working with my sorority to promote swim safety with our partners at USA Swimming. It made perfect sense to take the necessary step to provide free swimming lessons for individuals with autism and become a model for other cities to do the same. As we come out of this pandemic, my goal is to help others recognize the important role swim lessons play in saving lives.”