Yvonne Abraham

In the swim of things

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / May 23, 2010

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WALTHAM — If it were socially acceptable for a grown man to bellow “Ahhh! Ahhh! Ahhh!’’ while swimming laps, we wouldn’t need the Greene pool.

We wouldn’t need it if kids at the Y could handle a blind, diapered 6-year-old amusing himself by floating face-down then thrashing to flip over. Or if their parents could be fine with a nonverbal man in his 50s wading right up to fellow water-lovers and staring forever because that’s his way of being friendly.

But people out there are not OK with these things. That’s why the Greene pool at the Fernald Center is so popular.

For years, the turquoise-walled swim center has been a haven, not just for the developmentally and physically disabled men and women who make up the Fernald’s dwindling population, but also for hundreds of others whose disabilities make visits to other pools difficult and rare.

Here, everybody is different, so nobody is.

On a recent afternoon, the bellowing man, the 6-year-old, and the wader shared the water with a terrified-looking elderly woman clinging to her caregiver’s arm, three swimmers with Down syndrome doing laps, and an agitated young man who splashed around for a bit then stormed off, grunting angrily and flailing his dripping arms as his bewildered mother followed.

Then there was Ivan. With the help of a life vest, the 5-year-old floated on his back, kicking his legs and squealing with joy.

Born blind, and with Joubert syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that makes it impossible for him to support his own weight, Ivan’s body comes alive in the water.

“Ivan can’t take a step on land, but in the water he can,’’ his mother, Amber Bobnar, said, pulling him around her in gentle circles. At home in Watertown, he mostly sits or lies on the floor. Trying to exercise his muscles there is futile.

Here, 10 minutes away, she sits him with his back to the edge of the pool and he uses his legs to turn himself around so that she can lower him in. Back in the water, he floats on his back. He can’t speak, but Ivan is clearly blissed out, his smile huge.

There are precious few ways for Bobnar to give him that joy.

“He can’t do so many things,’’ she said. “I can’t take him to the library. If I take him to the park, I have to facilitate everything. It’s exhausting. This is relaxing.’’

Most other pools don’t work for Ivan. Some don’t allow flotation devices. Some demand that kids be potty-trained: They were once thrown out of a pool when someone noticed Ivan’s swim-diaper. Most important, Ivan needs a very warm pool — the Greene’s is set at 92 degrees — because he has trouble maintaining his body heat, turning blue after 10 minutes even in 86-degree water.

“We have so few options,’’ Bobnar said.

As of June 30, they won’t have this one. That’s the date the Fernald is supposed to close, after decades of legal wrangling over what should become of its population, which now stands at just 89. There’s talk of making a pool part of whatever development lands on the Fernald’s 200 acres, but that won’t happen for years, if at all. There are pools at similar institutions in Wrentham and Danvers, but they’re far enough away that visiting them occasionally will be an ordeal for the Bobnars and many others, instead of a necessary — and almost-daily — delight.

Those who favor the Fernald closing believe the time for separating those with profound disabilities from the rest of society passed long ago. It’s a noble view. But as Bobnar and other Greene devotees see it, the rest of society isn’t always quite ready for them.

Now there will be one less place where they can forget that.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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