by Eric Vasiliauskas
From the Editor: Dr. Eric Vasiliauskas (Dr. V as he is known affectionately) is no stranger to readers of the Braille Monitor and Future Reflections. His family, which includes two intelligent, articulate, active, inquisitive blind children, has appeared a number of times in these publications, and some of his writings have also been offered to parents who want helpful literature about how to nurture and raise blind children. What follows is a sequel to the article "So Dad, When Can I Go Surfing?" which appeared in the special issue of Future Reflections dedicated to sports and recreation activities published in 2007. Dr. V’s answer and the subsequent adventures he recounts have helped to build and strengthen the self-concept of two youngsters and the bonds that unite this special family. Reading about their adventures will prove invaluable to many other families who wrestle with the question of how to incorporate adventure activities into their children’s lives. Here is what Dr. V has to say:
A few years back I wrote an article chronicling a five-year-old's quest to learn to surf. As it turns out, that was only the first part of our story, a story that continues to unfold. The article “So Dad, When Can I Go Surfing?" left off with the mention that Vejas and I visited a local surf shop to purchase a board of his own.
What I did not say in that article was that, when we got home, Vejas's little brother Petras eagerly awaited and greeted us at the door, very anxious to check out the new surfboard. Vejas and I carried the board into the living room. As soon as we laid it out on the floor, Petras leaped on top. We explored the surfboard together: the soft-top surface, the smooth bottom, the nose (front part), the tail (back part), the rails (sides), and the fins. His bounding excitement was precious. Wanting to capture this moment, I asked Petras to stand up on the board to pose for a photo. He agreed, and, as I was snapping the shot, with a great big smile he confidently asked, "Where's my surfboard?" I was admittedly caught off-guard by the question and tried to explain to my then preschooler that when he was older, if he enjoyed surfing, we could discuss getting him a surfboard. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when he sincerely and earnestly responded with "So what about me Dad? When can I go surfing?" I scrambled for an answer and suggested that for now we focus on boogie-boarding and followed that up with an enthusiastic suggestion that we head to the beach that weekend for an ocean-side picnic and some boogie-boarding fun.
As it turns out, the local surf in the Los Angeles area is very different from the surf in Hawaii. While waves come in all sizes in the tropical island state, Hawaii is an ideal place to learn to surf, because there are many areas where the smaller waves gently roll for hundreds of yards—helpful to beginning surf enthusiasts of any age. In contrast, the waves in the South Bay of Los Angeles are much choppier and crash much more suddenly--sharply and very close to the shore. Vejas and I have tried surfing together locally several times, but the reality is that the waves are harder to catch and more unpredictable and the runs are much shorter.
Because it had been a number of years since we had been able to take a long vacation, last year we decided to take a family trip to the North Shore of the island of Kauai. We stayed near Hanalei Bay, which some claim is home to Puff the Magic Dragon. As soon as my wife Rasa and I told the boys about our plans, Petras's face lit up, and, without missing a beat, he asked, "Dad, am I going surfing?" Vejas almost immediately chimed in that he too was very much looking forward to formal surfing lessons once again.
There is a lot more to a successful surfing experience than just standing up on the board. Since this would be Petras's first time surfing, we wanted it to be a positive experience. Rasa and I concluded that individual lessons would be better that a group lesson. We did not really know the best local surf school or instructor to work with our boys. I scanned through some tourist brochures we had picked up at the airport and called the number on one of them. The lady who answered greeted me with a very pleasant "Aloha." I explained that we wanted to arrange for lessons. When I mentioned that the boys were blind, she made casual note of that and shortly thereafter called back with a time for the lessons.
A few mornings later we showed up at the bayside Hawaiian Surfing Adventures Surf School with our two very excited boys. We met their instructors, two native Hawaiian locals, Uncle Mitch (who we later learned owned the surf school) and Ke'ale, a pleasant younger instructor. The boys then got the customary on-land interactive intro to surfing session and were encouraged to explore the surfboard, shown how to lie down on it properly, and taken through the steps of how to pop up into proper surf stance, etc. Petras is very much a kinesthetic learner--he learns best by actually doing something or experiencing the activity. Though he paid very close attention, I could tell he was eager to move beyond the pretend part of the land instruction and get into the water.
We then headed over to the beach, where Uncle Mitch paused to assess the ocean conditions. "Good surf today, boys," he commented.
While Rasa went to get something from the car, I followed the boys and their instructors as they stepped into the water of Hanalei Bay. Unlike the southern part of the island, where there is lots of sharp coral, this part of the ocean near the mouth of the Hanalei River is shallow and sandy. We waded out several hundred feet from the shore. Uncle Mitch then asked me to stop and explained that it was going to be my job to catch the boys. The four of them then proceeded further into the bay.
In the distance I could see Vejas and Petras practice standing up, while their instructors stabilized their boards. Uncle Mitch worked more with Vejas and Ke'ale with Petras. After about five minutes I saw Petras stand up on the surfboard as he headed my way. Ke'ale rode the back of the board the first few times with Petras, who seemed reassured and clearly excited by his initial success.
Then from a distance I saw Vejas stand up. Surfing is like riding a bike; even when you haven't done it for a while, you quickly remember--and remember Vejas did! He stood up and rode the wave towards me. Camera in hand, I started taking photos while at the same time I enthusiastically cheered him on as he surfed past me Déjà vu! Oops all over again! I snapped out of my trance and then made a mad rush (half swimming, half sprinting) through the water after Vejas as he headed towards the mouth of the river. After a 200-plus-yard dash, I finally caught up with him. I quickly learned my lesson. Rasa then joined us, laughing at the scene she had just witnessed.
The rest of the morning was somewhat surreal. It drizzled on and off and even rained a bit. From time to time the sun would peek out. It was evident why Hanalei is known as the land of rainbows, for we saw quite a few that morning.
We decided that Rasa would position herself closer to the shore to catch the boys as they approached. My new assignment was to stand between her and the instructors to capture dynamic photographs of the boys as they surfed by. Rasa got proficient at immediately turning the surfboards around and pushing them back toward me. I in turn guided them back toward their instructors, who were deeper in the bay. This strategy worked well--except when the boys caught the same wave--in which case Rasa and I both jumped into high alert, each focusing on whoever was headed closer to us.
"Huli maka Huli" is a local term for flipping off the surfboard into the water. The waves that morning varied from small to over two and a half feet in height, yet Petras amazingly remained glued to his board like a gecko and fell off only twice the entire day. When they did tumble off their boards, the boys could sometimes feel the ocean bottom--other times not.
The boys spent nearly two hours in the ocean with their instructors. Vejas and Uncle Mitch and Ke'ale and Petras bonded in a remarkable way. At the end of the lesson Vejas told us that he had learned a few songs about Hawaii and a bunch of new Hawaiian words. He even emerged with a new name, "Makani" (pronounced mah-KAH-nee), which is Hawaiian for "the wind" ("Vejas" means "the wind" in Lithuanian).
We were very proud of the boys. While I will never forget the expression of pure joy on Vejas's face and his beaming sense of accomplishment when he caught his first wave and rode his board all the way to the shore, the glow of excitement and confidence that radiated from Petras at the end of this first surfing lesson was equally memorable. Petras quickly made it clear that he wanted to go surfing again.
After the lesson I spoke with Uncle Mitch and Ke'ale. I mentioned the Future Reflections surfing article I had written. Over lunch our family discussion covered not only what the boys had learned that morning but what might be done differently in the future, since each of them expressed a desire to do an even better job during the next lesson.
We were lucky to get the same instructors for the second lesson later that week. Ke'ale mentioned that he had read the article; I'm not sure if Uncle Mitch had or not. The lesson started with a brief on-land refresher on technique. It wasn't hard to tell that the boys were anxious to get back to where the action was, for I heard Petras ask, "Are we ready to get back into the water yet?"
As we stepped from the sandy beach into the water, Uncle Mitch said to Vejas: "Makani, take me to the surf!" Then he continued, "Makani, I'm going to teach you some new Hawaiian words." Vejas's ears perked up. "The first is `Ku'--that means `stand tall.' Uncle Mitch then took the opportunity to discuss and emphasize the importance of body posture, which is key to optimal performance and success. "Don't look down at the ocean; keep your head up and look at the nose of the board."
As we headed out into the bay, Uncle Mitch told the boys to feel the power of the water and to become one with the wave. The ocean was much calmer that day. As they waited for the right wave, Uncle Mitch and Ke'ale drilled the boys. They had clearly raised the bar and their expectations for what they wanted the boys to do. They focused more on technique this go-round. They worked intensively on the details of proper positioning and stance. As it turns out, Petras surfs "goofy foot," a term used for those that keep their right foot forward, whereas Vejas surfs "natural” or “regular foot," with his left foot forward. Between runs I could see Vejas and Petras in the distance lie down and stand up over and over as their instructors tried to reinforce the boys' motor memories. Using a combination of detailed explanation and kinesthetic input by manually guiding them through the movements as they practiced, the instructors worked on fine-tuning the boys’ technique, teaching them to transition smoothly from lying on the board to achieving the proper riding stance, and focusing on center of balance and what to do with their trunks, arms, legs, and heads.
Later Petras explained that, as they practiced on the water, Ke'ale told him to pretend he was catching a wave and to practice until he was "really, really good at it." Petras took this all very seriously and, like a sponge, soaked up the information. He said that he was instructed to hold his arms out for balance and to bend his knees to get more speed if he wanted to go "really fast." He mentioned that they also discussed what to do when he fell off the board: to stand or swim or float--then to get up again and try really hard. Petras's smile widened as he then relayed that the first time he fell off the board with, as he put it, "a whaaa--crash!" Ke'ale "laughed like Santa Claus."
By the end of the lesson the boys were noticeably exhausted. Then Uncle Mitch called Rasa and me over and, with a big smile and a twinkle in his eyes, said that he and Ke'ale wanted to try and see how the boys would do on a tandem ride. He proposed Petras ride the front of the board, with Vejas on the back of the same board. Imagine trying to balance on a surfboard in the water and the waves with someone else also standing on the same board. I don't think any of us were confident that this was going to work all that well, especially at the end of the day, but we had developed a trust in these instructors and their judgment. We asked the boys what they thought. They were both open to the idea, so we agreed.
Petras and Vejas then headed deeper into the bay with Uncle Mitch and Ke'ale. They waited for just the right wave. After a while in the distance I saw Vejas stand up, then Petras. As they neared, I could see that both were completely focused. Our eight-year-old and twelve-year-old surfed over 200 yards--the length of over two football fields--together--without falling. They were totally stoked as were Rasa and I and Uncle Mitch and Ke'ale. This was definitely a highlight of our family trip. To say the boys really enjoyed themselves that day would be an understatement; they, in fact, radiated joy and a sense of personal accomplishment.
Later Petras excitedly told me one morning that he had a dream about surfing. He smiled as he described how the waves were crashing down around him with a loud "Kaboom!" He explained how, in his dream, he caught a wave and rode it "really fast and really far--all the way to the shore."
Over the following Labor Day weekend, Petras asked me if I planned on going surfing. Before I could answer, he then said that, if I decided to, I should pay attention and proceeded to give me a detailed surfing list: stance, technique, and all of the other things that demonstrated how well he had been paying attention.
Petras opted to celebrate his first surfing success by going out for pizza that evening. Fate was smiling upon us when we decided to eat at Hanalei Pizza, a small local pizza shop tucked in Hanalei's Ching Young Village shopping center. Not only did we dine on an awesome pizza, we had the good fortune to meet the owner, a gentleman named Karlos, who, after taking our order and crafting our personalized pizza, came to our table to chat with us. Petras showed off the new surfboard keychain he had chosen for his long white cane; the boys then took turns enthusiastically sharing their surfing adventures. Their boundless excitement could accurately be described as contagious. Karlos then surprised us with an invitation to take us stand-up paddleboarding. I had never tried paddleboarding before but had observed others enjoying the sport and found the concept intriguing. Karlos reassured us that it was not too difficult, so we took him up on his offer.
We met near the mouth of the Hanalei River early one morning. Karlos greeted us, and we carried two paddle boards from his car to the bank of the river. Paddle boards are longer and wider than standard surfboards, characteristics that provide enhanced stability. Karlos gave me a concentrated crash course on stand-up paddleboarding; he showed me how to stand on the board correctly and instructed me on proper paddling technique. He then smiled and handed one paddle to me.
We decided that Vejas would go on the board with Karlos and Petras with me. The boys waded into the water and helped guide the boards away from the shore. Once the water was deep enough, they climbed onto the front of the boards. They started sitting cross-legged. Karlos was right; while there is clearly a learning curve, paddleboarding on the river was technically not particularly difficult. Nevertheless, it did end up being a full-body workout, and it was a challenge for me to keep up with him and Vejas. We paddled for about an hour or so up river, usually within sight but oftentimes out of hearing range. Vejas chatted with Karlos; Petras and I shared stories as well.
Despite his surfing success, Petras remained stationary and glued to the front of the board during our trip upriver, expressing concern about falling off the board into the cool morning water. From a distance I was pleased to see that, after a while, Karlos had managed to convince a somewhat nervous but excited Vejas to stand up. He showed Vejas how to position his body and paddle.
The scenery was gorgeous, with lush vegetation lining the riverbank and Kauai's mountains towering in front of us. Standing up straight while gliding across the smooth surface of the river created a sensation of being able to walk on water. Paddleboarding on the river turned out to be a unique blend of physical exercise and meditation--what a serene and relaxing experience.
Before heading back, Karlos suggested that the boys transfer boards. While I suspect we all felt somewhat uneasy about the idea, I supported the proposal and did my best to be the reassuring father; the boys agreed to give it a try. As it turns out, a board-to-board transfer on the water is not all that simple, because it is really tricky for everyone--on both boards--to maintain balance with the sudden weight shifts. The slightest miscalculation, by either over or under-compensating by any of the four of us, could easily have resulted in the board tipping or flipping and everyone getting very wet. To the amazement of all of us, we did it. It was only after the successful maneuver that our instructor told us that 90 plus percent of the time he has tried this floating transfer, everyone ends up tumbling into the water. Petras broke out into unbridled laughter. Now that he was safe, the thought of everyone toppling into the water seemed hilarious.
Petras remembers Karlos’s asking him, "What does Humpty Dumpty do on a paddle board? Sometimes he falls off!" That broke the ice as they started back down the river. Nearing the end of the journey, Petras gained the confidence to stand up on the paddle board, and Karlos instructed Petras on how to stand on the board properly and paddle--this made for quite an impressive finale for Rasa, who was waiting for us by the shore.
It is important to acknowledge that part of our boys' successes in these activities was that both Vejas and Petras were already quite comfortable in the water. Every child, blind or sighted, should be taught swimming basics--at least to tread water and a basic stroke at a minimum--so that they are confident, or at least comfortable, in the water. Over the course of my life I have seen quite a few children and adults unintentionally end up in the water, having tipped out of a canoe into a lake or river or having accidentally fallen or having (in fun) been pushed into the pool at a party. During my residency training I saw far too many near-drowning victims. Learning to swim is not just fun and good exercise but could some day save your child's life.
Petras and Vejas have been receiving formal swimming instruction since they were two or three years old. They both really look forward to their weekly swimming lessons. Of note is that their swimming instructors have had no special training in blindness. The instructors use their common sense along with a lot of verbal cues and lots of explanation and, when necessary, physically guiding the boys through the various aquatic movements. The boys are working on all the strokes: free-style, backstroke, breaststroke, even the butterfly--and how to swim laps with the eventual goal of being able to do so independently.
The ripple effect is real. As I reflect, it's amazing to think that the sequence of events that subsequently unfolded all started with a simple question posed by a curious five-year-old seeking clarification of a concept first introduced in a story. From there, one thing led to another, and eventually he was able to pursue one of his dreams successfully. His enthusiasm about surfing ultimately inspired his younger brother, father, and even cousins and uncles to give the sport a try. As a result each of us not only has his own stories to tell, but we too have a powerful sense of personal accomplishment and share a unique bond. The excitement and confidence gained from the successful surfing experiences ultimately contributed to our pursuing new activities and adventures, including skiing; snowboarding; sea-kayaking; rock-climbing; and, most recently, paddleboarding. Indeed, through these shared experiences we have created a tighter family bond.
Successfully participating in and perhaps even mastering sports and recreational activities has an impact that reaches far beyond the activity itself. The social benefits cannot be overstated. Participating in such endeavors results in immeasurable personal growth and increased self-confidence. These experiences, including camping, hiking, sledding, inner-tubing, rollerblading, roller-skating, ice-skating, attending live sporting events, bowling, watching the latest movie in the theater, or having fun at a water park, provide the experience from which blind children can more actively engage in conversations with their friends and peers about activities they have tried and enjoyed or might like to try in the future.
Pictures of a blind child taking part in activities like surfing and skiing also go a long way toward immediately changing the perceptions of classmates and their parents, teachers, and others about a child's abilities. I have made a habit of taking along a few key photos of each of the boys engaged in selected activities, including surfing, skiing, snowboarding, and rock-climbing. I admit that I show these photos to new instructors to spark a paradigm shift in their level of expectation. It helps establish a different framework for the initial interactions and expectations--and kids tend to live up to those expectations.
If you, your child, or your student can think of a sport or recreational activity, there is a high probability that somewhere in the world blind people have tried or actively engage in it. To get a flavor of the kinds of sports and recreational activities blind people enjoy, I urge you to search the term "blind sports" on Google, Yahoo, Bing, or any other search engine of your choice. Sighted people can quickly scan the possibilities using the image or video search options to find page after page of blind children and adults engaging in all sorts of physical activities. This simple exercise is sure to amaze many, even seasoned professionals in the VI and O&M fields, while challenging preconceptions about what is feasible and realistic. Indeed the possibilities are virtually endless.
I have often been asked, "How do you find someone experienced and willing to teach a blind child?" For many activities it is unlikely that you will find an instructor who has formal training in how to teach blind children or any experience working with a blind child or adult. In fact, for many first-time experiences, parents may very well find themselves in the role of instructor.
So how do you create opportunities? Start by searching for possibilities in your neighborhood and surrounding communities. Find out what your friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and the parents of your child's classmates are doing. By actively seeking this information, you will be surprised at the range of activities people pursue for fun, and many potential opportunities are likely to arise. Then, when opportunity knocks, answer the door.
While I can certainly empathize with the argument that "We're always busy" it is critically important to create time for adventure with your children and also to be spontaneous. Vacation time is an especially golden opportunity to try new things. Those parents who choose to pursue sports and recreation activities with their children will create a powerfully unique bonding experience that will strengthen their relationships.
To grow and experience the most from life, children and parents alike must step outside their comfort zones and from time to time engage in some thoughtful risk-taking. One of the mottos of the National Federation of the Blind is "Changing what it means to be blind." Parents live on the front lines with their children and hold the master key to changing what it means to be a blind child. Indeed, it takes a blend of courage and faith on the part of both the parents and children to try some new activities.
I'll be the first to admit that it's an uneasy feeling to let go and to send a child, sighted or blind, into the ocean with a stranger to try something totally new and unpredictable such as standing up and riding a floating board with loud waves crashing around--and sometimes on top--of them. Petras and Vejas were both totally out of their comfort zones during their first surfing experiences, in which they spent most of their time away from Mom and Dad. Likewise our new acquaintance, the pizza shop owner, was initially a stranger; yet we decided to try a completely new activity, one in which a slight miscalculation could easily have resulted in our tumbling into the water. We were not sure what to expect ahead of time, and during the activity we were not really together much of the time--usually within our sight, but generally out of hearing range; and yet our children did fine and loved the adventure. These both turned out to be exhilarating experiences.
When possible, it is very helpful to do your homework ahead of time by trying to learn from the real-life experiences of blind youth, blind adults, and parents of other blind children. Such pearls of wisdom can be invaluable. Understanding what might work well and, as important, what to avoid can make the difference between success, a mediocre experience, and failure. For parents and teachers seeking real-time guidance based on the experiences of other blind individuals, the two best resources at this time are the Blindkids listserv <www.nfbnet.org/mailman/listinfo/blindkid_nfbnet.org> and the NFB Sports and Recreation listserv <www.nfbnet.org/mailman/listinfo/sportsandrec_nfbnet.org>. The Blindkids listserv is a network of parents of blind and visually impaired children and blind adults from all over the U.S. and beyond. The NFB's Sports and Recreation Division listserv is another truly amazing resource--a network of blind sports and recreation enthusiasts who enjoy or are seeking to figure out how to try a whole host of activities. Some listserv members are even Paralympic athletes. By joining and posting questions or situations on these listservs, parents and educators will receive a host of responses and suggestions within minutes or hours from parents or blind children, based on their own experiences.
In order to get the most out of the experience, one must remember to have high, age-appropriate expectations. Don't underestimate the abilities of blind children or students, for they are likely to surprise you and even themselves. Though in our family we truly strive for high and age-appropriate equal expectations, it seems our boys never cease to amaze us. They not only rise to the occasion, but often exceed everyone's expectations, including their own. My children have revitalized my pursuit of fun and fitness and have given me the gift of new and exciting recreational activities that I can now pursue and enjoy. I encourage you to open yourselves to that possibility as well.