Future Reflections Special Issue: Sports, Fitness, and Blindness
The National Federation of the Blind Magazine for Parents and Teachers of Blind Children
Vol. 26, No. 2 Special Issue: Sports, Fitness, and Blindness
Barbara Cheadle, Editor
Copyright © 2007 National Federation of the Blind
For more information
about blindness and children contact:
National Organization of Parents of Blind Children
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(410) 659-9314, ext. 2360
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Vol. 26, No. 2 Special Issue: Sports, Fitness, and Blindness
From the Editor
So Dad, When Can I Go Surfing?
by Eric Vasiliauskas
A Lesson from Life: Take Your Cane!
by Lisamaria Martinez
FIT FOR LIFE
Get Off the Couch and Onto the Bandwagon
by Seth Lamkin
Fit for Life
by Jennifer Butcher
PHYSICAL EDUCATION (P. E.)
Me and My P. E. Teacher
by Melissa Williamson
Physical Education and Recreation for Blind and Visually Impaired
by Angelo Montagnino
California Considers Legislation to Increase Blind Students’ Access to Physical Education
A Blind Swimmer Uses Her Hearing and Boundless Courage to Compete
by Curtis Anderson
Seeing Beyond the Impossible
by David Wright
THEN AND NOW
T-Ball and Beyond
An Independent Spirit
Fun, Fitness, and Family
by Barbara Mathews
Blind Kids Love Sports, Too! and Still (Sports) Crazy After
All These Years
by Tom Balek
Erica Costa, a Red Sox Fan, Stays Up-to-Date with NFB-NEWSLINE®
by Eileen B. Hogan
Tips About Summer Camps
by Barbara Cheadle and Lisamaria Martinez
My Horseback-Riding Camp Experiences
by Ana Gschwend
IN THE COMMUNITY
Blind Kids in Sports--Focus on Golf
by Christina Zani
Goalball--The Great Equalizer
by Vasantha Ayilavarapu
Adventure on Top of the World
by Barbara Pierce
Blind Mountain Climbers Challenge Prejudice, and Reach for the
by Kim Puntillo
Mountains to Climb: Blind Dillon Teen Conquers Baldy Mountain
by Maryanne Davis Silve and Marty Greiser
What is the truth about blindness? The pursuit of the answer to this question is not some head-in-the-clouds, philosophical exercise far removed from the realities of everyday life for parents and teachers of blind children. It is not even one of many important questions--it is the only question.
Consider, for example, an ordinary life skill typically taught by parents: making a bed. Can a blind kid learn to make his/her own bed? If so, when should he/she learn? On average, how fast and how thoroughly can he/she be expected to make the bed? Is it possible for a blind person to be as efficient, as thorough, and as fast as a sighted peer? If one blind person can demonstrate equality or even superiority in bed-making, does this prove anything regarding the capacities of blind people in general? What difference will it make in the life of a blind child whether he or she ever learns to make a bed? Does the capacity to make a bed have anything to do with the larger question of whether or not this child will someday be able to get a job and earn a competitive paycheck? The answers to these questions about a simple, mundane task are all connected to what one believes to be true about blindness.
And that’s what this publication is all about: The pursuit of the truth about blindness. We--that is, the collective “we” of the National Federation of the Blind--provide our readers with all the evidence we can muster based on the accumulation of knowledge gained over decades through the collective experiences of thousands of blind people. This task is not easy for it involves busting down some tough myths about blindness. For it is these myths, not the physical fact of blindness, that are the greatest barriers to full participation in the community. The purpose of this special issue on sports and fitness is to help you break down such barriers for your son, daughter, or student at home, in school, and in the community. Of all the myths about blindness, one of the most stubborn to overcome is the belief that blind people can’t do anything physically challenging.
Some of the articles in this issue are originals and some are reprints from previous issues of Future Reflections or other publications. They are a collection of stories by and about blind adults, blind kids, parents, PE teachers, and coaches which confirm this truth: blind kids don’t have to be relegated to the swing on the playground, keeping score during PE class, or sitting at home listening to music while everybody else goes to the ballgame. Blind kids can swing a bat, race down the soccer field, rock-climb with friends, dive at the community pool, compete on the gymnastics team, hike up mountains, play a family game of touch football, cheer on his or her favorite team at the sports stadium, and more. They can, that is, if we expect it and give them lots of opportunities to practice and build up stamina, dexterity, strength, and resilience in body and in mind. This is a truth you can count on.
by Eric Vasiliauskas
Young children, whether sighted or blind, share an innate curiosity to learn about the world. This is why they constantly ask questions and want to do this or try that. While it is particularly important to create an atmosphere that actively encourages and supports a blind child’s desire to explore, sometimes such quests for new experiences can catch you off guard. This is how one such request played out.
Several summers ago, I was invited to lecture at a medical conference in Hawaii. My wife and two boys, Vejas and Petras, accompanied me. Disney’s Hawaii-based cartoon movie “Lilo & Stitch” débuted that very week. I was not particularly surprised when, after listening to the Read-A-Long audio book version of “Lilo & Stitch,” my ever-inquisitive, soon-to-be first grader asked, “Dad, what exactly is surfing?”
As we continued to drive, I did my best to explain. Vejas was already very familiar with kickboards. Before the trip we had already discussed that a boogie board was in a sense a bigger version of a kickboard that you lie down on to ride a wave. I further built on these concepts and elaborated that a surfboard was sort of similar to a boogie board, but much longer and that rather than lying on it, you actually stand up on the board to ride the wave.
Since I knew where this line of conversation was likely to lead, I decided to preemptively divert the discussion by enthusiastically reassuring him that we would go boogie-boarding later that week and that the activity would give him a sense of what surfing is. I could tell that this parental diversionary tactic was only partially successful; I’m convinced that that is when Vejas first started to dream of surfing.
A vacation in Hawaii could hardly be considered complete without attending a luau. As part of the pre-dinner festivities, in addition to exhibits featuring hula dancing, Hawaiian instruments, and local arts and crafts, there was one devoted to surfing. Vejas had never actually laid his hands (or feet for that matter) on a surfboard, so once the crowd around the exhibit thinned out a bit we walked over to meet the young local surfer in charge of the display.
Vejas in his usual fashion struck up a conversation and asked a barrage of questions about surfing. As Vejas then climbed onto one of the surfboards, I started to make wave sounds and to move the board around in an attempt to simulate the motion of waves, so as to give him a sense of what it might feel like to surf. He was visibly intrigued and excited.
My then five-and-one-half-year-old enthusiastically seized this opportunity to ask, “So Dad, when can I go surfing?” I did what I imagine many parents of a recent kindergarten graduate might do in this situation and decided I would try to “punt” this one for a while by rationalizing that as we were near the end of our trip, we would try surfing “the next time we go to Hawaii.” As a compromise I proposed that we not only go boogie boarding the next day, but sea-kayaking as well.
We in fact had a great time the following morning. We rented a two-person sea-kayak. Vejas sat in front wearing his life jacket and I sat behind him. As we paddled out into the calm bay we discussed water safety and I shared some stories from my younger days as a lifeguard. Towards the end of our adventure, a rogue wave snuck up on us from behind. Fortunately, I noticed it just in time to yell to Vejas to brace himself and hold on as tight as he could. As my adrenaline surged, I leaned into my paddle with all my might. The wave literally lifted and carried us forward as it proceeded toward the shore. We essentially surfed the wave in our kayak and to this day I am amazed that we actually managed to remain upright.
As we recovered from the excitement, I explained to Vejas how we would have handled the situation had we gone for a major tumble. It occurred to me that this was a perfect opportunity for a real life lesson. Thus, after conferring with Vejas, once we reached the shallow water near the beach, we together tipped the kayak over--on purpose. I then showed him how to right the kayak and how to pull himself out of the water and climb back in. Vejas got such a kick out of this, that upon his request we repeated this maneuver over a number of times.
Next we went boogie boarding. Only adult-sized boards were available for rent and it soon became evident that Vejas was not long enough to be able to effectively kick or to really stabilize the board, nor could he adequately anticipate the bigger waves in this part of the bay. We discovered that if he lay on top of the board and I positioned myself directly over him, I could kick with my fins and make sure we caught the waves. This way we were able to ride bigger waves together. We caught some great waves and had our fair share of spills as well. Vejas beamed radiantly as he relayed the morning’s adventures to his mother and little brother that afternoon. Yet while boogie boarding was lots of fun, Vejas knew it was not the same as surfing.
Well, as fate would have it, we decided to go on a real two-week vacation (no work this time) to Kauai the following summer. As soon as the airplane’s wheels lifted off the ground Vejas stopped reading the book his mother had Brailled for him for the flight. He turned his head towards me and in a very focused fashion extended his hand to find my face and gently guided it in his direction with the clear intent of making sure he had my full attention. (I wonder where he learned that maneuver?) He then pointedly posed his question, a question that undoubtedly had been brewing ever since we began to plan this trip: “So Dad, when are we going surfing?” I reassured him that we would look into it once we got to Hawaii.
About a week into the trip, Vejas again asked, “So Dad, which day is my surfing lesson?” I realized at that point that there was no getting around it. That evening I looked through the multitude of brochures and visitors’ guides we had accumulated and saw a promising ad for lessons by a local world-renowned champion surfer.
Rasa and I both believe that our children should have the same types of experiences as other children. By this time we had met or heard of many remarkable blind individuals and of their accomplishments. We had thus already come to understand and fully believe that there is virtually nothing a blind person can’t do if they put their mind to it. Inspired by Cara Dunne-Yates and her family, I had even taken Vejas skiing with me when he was three years old. Yet as I dialed the number listed in the advertisement, I began to imagine what the person answering the phone would think. Not only was I asking for surfing lessons for a six-year-old, but a blind one to boot. To my pleasant surprise, the lady who answered the phone with a friendly “aloha” took this all in stride. She called me back within the hour and informed me she had arranged for a private surf lesson.
Several mornings later, we woke up very early and drove forty-five minutes to Poipu Beach, where at seven a.m. we met Vejas’s surf instructor, Miguel. He had grown up in Hawaii and had started surfing at such a young age that he didn’t remember how old he was when his father first put him on a surfboard. Miguel had been on the professional surfing circuit for a number of years. He had a nine-year-old son who he had taught to surf at three years of age on this very beach. He did not seem even a little bit phased by the blindness issue. He asked appropriate questions in a tactful way. He wanted to know how strong a swimmer Vejas was and was pleased to learn he had been taking formal swimming lessons weekly since three-and-one-half years of age. He asked if Vejas had enough residual vision to distinguish the water, the sand, or the surfboard. Vejas informed him that he could only see light.
They first practiced on land for half an hour. Miguel had Vejas explore the entire surfboard. He explained that the front of the surfboard is termed the nose while the back end is called the tail. Vejas learned that the sides, or the rails, are particularly important, as that is where all the balance is. The deck is the part you ultimately stand on.
They went over the dynamics of positioning on the board. He had Vejas lie on the surfboard with his hands holding onto the rails and his toes pointed towards the tail. He then had Vejas start out in paddle position and pretend to catch a wave. Miguel described how, as Vejas first engaged the wave, he would need to position his arms in push-up position and then pop up into surf stance. (I must admit that it was refreshing for me to hear an outside person emphasize the importance of body posture and head positioning.) Then like a drill sergeant of sorts, the instructor had Vejas practice by verbally and tactilely guiding him through the motions of springing up and assuming the proper surfing stance over and over and over again until this kinesthetically was integrated to the point it was nearly automatic.
Miguel then looked at me and announced that it was time to graduate and move the lesson to the ocean. He chose a spot in the coral reef where the waves gently rolled in. Miguel instructed me to wait in the shallow water by the shore to catch Vejas when he arrived. I watched as they headed out to the water and I prepared my camera. In the distance, Miguel then guided the surfboard around so that it pointed towards the shore.
When the right wave finally came along, Miguel gently pushed the surfboard forward. From there the wave and Vejas took over. On his very first run Vejas pushed up, then moved his back foot into position, followed by his lead foot. His legs were appropriately bent and his head looked forward as he assumed a near perfect surf stance.
I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I was not fully prepared for what followed. I was in fact so mesmerized and blown away that not only did I forget I had a camera, I literally watched Vejas surf right past me. As I cheered him on, I forgot that I was supposed to catch him. I was suddenly shaken from my trance when a few seconds later the nose of his board lodged into a sandbar and Vejas unexpectedly lunged forward off the board. Ouch!
I rushed over to him, not quite sure what to expect. Before I could ask him how he was, he exclaimed: “Did you see me Dad? I want to do that again!” You should have seen the joy on his face and the beaming sense of accomplishment that radiated from him after catching his first wave, standing up, and riding the wave all the way to the shore. He was, as we say in California, “totally stoked!” It was a storybook-perfect first run. He surfed for another hour that morning taking his fair share of spills and wipeouts amongst the better runs.
I too was beaming with fatherly pride the rest of the lesson and have to admit that it was fun to watch the smiles on the faces of passers-by out for an early morning stroll on the beach, amused as they saw this six-and-one-half-year-old kid realize one of his dreams and enthusiastically persist despite the spills. I kept imagining what they would be thinking if they knew that this determined youngster was blind as well.
Talk about a self-confidence building experience! Vejas’s accomplishment commanded an immediate sense of respect from his peers.
During parent orientation night a few weeks later, the teacher had allotted me five minutes to talk about Vejas and blindness as it related to his first grade class. I explained how for Vejas to successfully compete in life he would ultimately be held to the same standards as his sighted peers and thus it was crucial that he learn to be independent and to do things on his own. I had prepared a brief handout for the parents that included child-oriented Web sites about blindness, pictures and descriptions of some remarkable blind individuals, activities Vejas enjoyed, and suggestions on how parent-volunteers and classmates could facilitate our son’s socialization as well as promote his independence in the classroom and during extracurricular activities.
The pictures of Vejas’s summer activities were by far the most powerful part of the handout. We included these in our parent’s portion of his IEP document as well. In a way that written and verbal description could not quite do justice, the pictures of our blind six-year-old surfing immediately challenged the established paradigms of the parents, teachers, and other school staff, and even VI professionals. Preconceived notions of what a blind child is capable of began to melt away. The minds of those that would be interacting with our son were opened, allowing them to see him as a capable adventurous boy who is eager to take on life’s experiences.
It was during that same vacation that Rasa and I read the Future Reflections, Introductory Issue paperback for the first time. We read with great interest as blind adults, educators, parents of blind children, and even blind kids themselves shared experiences covering a wide variety of topics pertinent to growing up blind and to raising a blind child. Importantly, each was presented from a positive, uplifting, practical, and success-in-academics and success-in-life prospective. How refreshing and comforting it was to find such a concentration of viewpoints that paralleled and supported those we had come to develop!
One of the chapters in this introductory issue included the presentations of a panel of five blind youths who spoke at an NFB Convention on the topic of “Fun, Friends, and Fitting In.” The young panelists individually and collectively demonstrated that blind kids can do--and in fact do do--things that sighted kids do. They highlighted the importance of independence and stressed how actively working to enhance their blindness skills not only facilitated their independence, but also their self-confidence and socialization.
During the flight home I read each child’s speech to Vejas. He eagerly listened to every detail. Vejas was very excited by the “virtual encounters” with each of the young presenters who, like he, was blind and who shared many of his own interests. The profound impact that Adam, Brian, Jennifer, Noel, and Lauren had on my son soon became evident when afterwards he turned to me and excitedly and earnestly exclaimed, “so that’s why you want me to be more independent!” Indeed, these five young Federationists had managed to get across this message and ignite an internal desire to strive for increased independence in our son in a way that his teachers and we as sighted parents had not quite been able to do.
Next we read excerpts from an issue of the Braille Monitor about a large number of blind high school graduates and college students who had earned scholarships from the NFB. Even at this young age, Vejas was excited by the range of careers these success-oriented young men and women were choosing to pursue. As I watched, an amazing transformation began to take place in my son before my very eyes--a transformation sparked by the stories and ambitions of blind children and blind youth--I began to truly understand the potential power of the National Federation of the Blind.
Vejas is now ten years old and is the proud owner of his very own seven-foot yellow surfboard. He had a second lesson with Miguel a few years later and he has had several additional formal lessons with other surf instructors since then. I have to admit that Vejas looked like he was having so much fun out there on the waves, that he inspired me to take up surfing last year. I once asked Vejas which instructor he thought was the best. “Miguel,” he responded without much hesitation. When I asked him why, I was admittedly a little surprised by his insightful response: Vejas said it was because Miguel paid the most attention to detail and had the highest expectations of him.
Perhaps some of the biggest limitations the blind face are conceptual biases that most of us have grown up with. Unfortunately these misconceptions of the capabilities of the blind are relayed either directly or indirectly to our blind children even at a very young age by the adults and even children that they interact with. The NFB is devoted to changing what it means to be blind. I submit that accounts of the accomplishments of young Federationists may have the greatest potential to influence changes in perceptions of what it means to be a blind child. “Perceptual early intervention” via such peer-based stories has the potential to serve as seeds of inspiration of what is possible to other blind children, their parents, and teachers.
I thus urge more parents, children, teenagers, and young adults to take the time to write down and share your adventures and experiences to help develop a childhood-focused resource of what is possible. If enough of you do so, perhaps some day they may even evolve into a dedicated “Kids Corner” in Future Reflections or the Braille Monitor.
by Lisamaria Martinez
President, NFB Sports and Recreation Division
When I was in the fourth grade, I was in the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program. That particular year we learned about theater and the arts. When Christmas time approached, we put on a play called Santa and the Snowmobile. I was cast as one of the eight reindeer and had the opportunity to dance around stage during most of the songs while the elves sat at a table and pretended to build toys.
One day during rehearsal
I took the arm of a fellow reindeer and exited the stage. I had done this many
times in previous rehearsals. However, every other time the stairs were at a
ninety-degree angle to the side of the stage. Well, on this particular day the
janitors had set the stairs at a ninety-degree angle to the front of the stage.
Even though I was being guided to the stairs, I fell off the stage, and my Girl
Scout uniform was never quite the same. One thing I did not have with me that
day was my cane. The fall resulted in five stitches on my nose and a play director
who was very concerned that I would repeat my not-so-graceful exit during the
The director had wanted me to play an elf from the beginning, and my fall only proved to her that I should be sitting at the back of the stage with the other elves. However, I didn’t want to be an elf. I wanted to be a reindeer, and I told her that. I also began to use my cane to exit off stage. I learned a very valuable lesson that day: I learned the importance of using a cane, I learned to advocate for myself, and I learned the importance of getting back up when you fall down.
Looking back now I realize that my attitudes about blindness started with my parents. They never let me shirk my responsibilities because I was blind; blindness was not an excuse but a reason to be somebody. They pushed me to become the young woman I am today. They always told me that I could do anything I set my mind to do. From the very beginning my parents had a can-do attitude and held very high expectations for me.
I benefited immensely from such positive attitudes and high expectations. I took my parents’ high expectations for me and made them my standards. For example, I decided that I wanted to be involved in the sports that my peers were getting involved in. In elementary school, we had an Olympic Day, and I was told I couldn’t participate in many of the events. This upset me immensely. I knew I could do them, but I was told I couldn’t because it involved running, climbing, throwing, and jumping. The teachers and school staff thought that blind kids shouldn’t or couldn’t do these things. But, in the end, I found ways, and I made sure that my cane took me through some of those obstacle courses or led me to the next event.
In junior high and high school, I began competing in track and field events. I lost some races and I won some races. Through it all, I made sure that my cane waited for me at the end of every race to take me back to the bleachers so that I could cheer on my fellow teammates.
When I was told that I could not compete in my high school’s track meets because I used a running guide, I found a way. I learned how other blind runners competed in track and field and I went to the media and told my story. After a reporter and photographer attended my first track meet and sat along the sidelines with me, all the coaches in the division suddenly had a change of heart.
In college, like many of my friends, I wanted to experience a semester abroad. The idea of studying in a different country absolutely terrified me. However, fifteen years of positive attitudes and high expectations told me that I couldn’t bypass such a wonderful opportunity just because I was blind and afraid. So, I enrolled for a semester at the Institute for Shipboard Education. I traveled to ten different countries while studying sociology, psychology, and biomedical ethics. I proved to myself that I could and, simultaneously, gained just a little bit more confidence in my abilities as a blind person to get out there and travel in all kinds of circumstances using my cane.
The ship staff members were a bit nervous to have a blind person aboard. Before I even started my semester abroad, I was firmly told that they would absolutely not change any of the physical structure of the ship to make it safer for a blind person. I explained to them that changing the physical structure of the ship (whatever that meant) was not necessary and would most likely make things more complicated for all concerned. I assured them that with my cane I would have no problems navigating through the halls and decks of the ship. And, once I stepped foot onto foreign soil, it was my cane that guided me through the potholes in the streets of Brazil, the careening rickshaws of India, and the rugged streets of South Africa.
Today I am a graduate of the Louisiana Tech University orientation and mobility program. I am a certified cane travel instructor. In my mind, this was the most natural and obvious career choice. I want to be able to teach other blind people a skill that is so essential to my successes in life, a skill that so obviously factored into so many of my life experiences. I am also the president of the Sports and Recreation Division of the National Federation of the Blind. Sports and other recreation activities played a significant role in my early life, and still do. I had to learn to be creative in order to play alongside my peers. Through sports, I learned to advocate for myself and gained confidence in my abilities as a blind person to succeed and to achieve in whatever I set my mind to.
I am very grateful to my parents for sparking that flame, that desire to go forward into life independently with my long white cane in my hand. Through all of my experiences I learned that independent travel and movement infiltrates every aspect of life. Therefore, it is such an essential skill for a blind person to know and do well. I guess, too, I am grateful for that little knock on my nose because without it I may have never gotten to know the value of my long white cane.
by Seth Lamkin
The current trend in popular culture today is to lose weight fast, and to do it as effortlessly as possible. Fitness ads are targeting middle-aged adults, while politicians, TV personalities, scientists, parents, and even fast-food chains are turning their attention to the nation’s children. Mixed messages, yes, and it may feel like you’re sifting through a lot of garbage, but don’t throw it all away, because it’s often the thought that counts--a growing appreciation of fitness and personal health.
In today’s American culture, instant gratification is the norm, or rule, I should say. From high-speed Internet to one-stop-shopping to fast food: the invincible six-year-old’s Kryptonite. The current childhood obesity problem in America is a product of many things, one of which is the ease and availability of fast food. We all know how easy it is to drive up to your local fast-food establishment and order your family dinner in a paper bag, with an easy-to-tote cardboard box for the kid. According to research, they can’t help but love the stuff. Healthy eating early on “is constrained by children’s genetic predispositions, which include the unlearned preference for sweet tastes, salty tastes, and the rejection of sour and bitter tastes. Children are also predisposed to reject new foods…” 1 The key is to introduce healthy foods early and stick to them.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the percentages of obese kids under the age of nineteen have nearly tripled since 1980. And what do you get when you have obese kids? Eventually, you get the adult versions that become burdens on the health care system. Besides producing poor self-esteem and negative social interactions, obesity can be blamed for a variety of serious health concerns including hypertension, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes--which coincidentally can cause blindness--heart disease, stroke, respiratory problems, and some forms of cancer.
The current trends in entertainment aren’t helping matters. Video games are a prime culprit that addictively entertains children and, admittedly young men, while keeping them glued to the couch. While the PlayStation® may be improving children’s manual dexterity, it is certainly not providing them with the opportunities for exercise and exploration that little minds and bodies so desperately need. And while studies may disagree as to whether video games are a cause or a result of obesity, the link is undeniable.
As the attacks on video games and television increase in the anti-childhood obesity movement, it may be easy to overlook the other, more innocent contributors. A study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the time taken by a child’s attention to electronic media alone does not necessarily lead to decreasing athletic activity. Any form of non-active entertainment that may dominate a child’s day will be destructive--including reading. Kids today spend an average of five-and-a-half hours a day using some form of media--more time than they spend doing anything else besides sleep. 2 This is not to discourage you from encouraging your child to read, in fact, the NOPBC encourages Braille readers to be leaders in their community. The goal is a balance in activity to produce qualified, well-adjusted adults--renaissance men and women in their own way.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock--an enviable position at times--you may have noticed the enormous volume of get-thin-quick schemes. Most are obvious frauds, but the point is that an emerging American paradox is the obsession with fitness and appearance, with a propensity towards sloth and obesity. It would be funny if it weren’t so frustrating. News broadcasts warn you about the nation’s obesity epidemic, showing unflattering footage of sweatpant-clad, overweight Americans from the waist down. Then, their commercial break is littered with fast-food and sedentary entertainment ads, with the occasional Bowflex® piece. Fast-food restaurants now scramble to tell you how their quarter-pound grease bomb is better for you than the competitor’s.
But while the tension between the two sides is confusing at times, it is important to note that the fitness bandwagon is racing by, and there is no reason why you and your blind child should not be on it. According to American Sports Data Inc., over 39 million Americans belong to health clubs, and many more participate in regular fitness activity of some form. Masterfoods, the producer of M&M’s® and Snickers®, has announced that it will stop marketing to kids under twelve by the end of 2007. In 2000, the Department of Health and Human Services launched Healthy People 2010, a health promotion and disease prevention campaign to try to improve the nation’s health in the first decade of the new millennium. The attention may be due to the perceived drain on the health care system and the dollars associated with it, but in any case, even Uncle Sam is getting involved.
So the pressing need for physical education and proper nutrition is being recognized, and marketing schemes from both sides continue to fight for your fifteen minutes of attention. Now you’re wondering why you needed one more article to tell you this. Well, the answer is this: children who are blind consistently display a lower level of activity and exercise than their sighted counterparts.3 As parents of blind children, you know the hurdles to physical activity that go beyond what sighted children must face: poor self-confidence, lack of training, lack of opportunity, and a low level of expectations from those around them.
But blind people are excelling at all levels of physical fitness. The United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) is a community-based organization of the United States Olympic Committee, and reaches blind athletes across the country. USABA athletes have served as U.S. Olympic Team members and won medals against sighted competitors. In fact, a blind runner named Marla Runyan qualified for the 2000 Olympic Team in the 1,500 meter race, competing all the way to the finals. She also finished as the top American in the Boston and New York Marathons. As recently as 2006, she finished first at the Twin Cities U.S. Marathon Championships.
There’s a whole host of options waiting for you. Your child doesn’t have to be a superstar or an Olympian. In fact, he/she doesn’t even need to play organized sports--although if he/she doesn’t, it shouldn’t be because of blindness (as you will see throughout this issue). With the modern American parent living life by routines and schedules, many have placed similar restrictions on their children. But there is a growing movement towards a form of exercise focused on exploration and creativity: a period of time in which children are free to develop their own method of active play.
The importance of this “free play” is being recognized both at home and abroad. The Free Play Network, based out of the UK, works to counter the trend towards restrictive and overly organized play opportunities for children. Your children may not have the affinity towards traditional, organized sports, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exercise. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote a report on “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds.” They found that free play develops creativity and imagination, builds confidence, helps to practice decision-making skills, and generally creates a better understanding of the world around them.
Getting off the proverbial couch can sometimes be a scary notion when one lacks confidence. That is why encouraging it when children are young is so important. The recklessness of youth should be supervised, but it shouldn’t be overly restrained. And while media trends may change, and even send mixed messages, the current push towards exercise and play should be seized and encouraged. So, take the concept and run with it--no really, run--and hop on that fitness bandwagon.
1. Birch, Leann L., Fisher, Jennifer O. “Development of Eating Behaviors Among Children and Adolescents.” Pediatrics, Mar 1998. 101:539-549.
2. “The Role of Media in Childhood Obesity.” Kaiser Family Foundation. Issue Brief 7030. 2004
3. Blessing, D. L., McCrimmon, D., Stovall, J., & Williford, H. N. “The Effects of Regular Exercise Programs for Visually Impaired and Sighted Schoolchildren.” Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. Volume 87. 1993. (50-52)
by Jennifer Butcher
Physical Education Teacher
Washington State School for the Blind
Editor’s Note: Jennifer Butcher is an exemplary model of the modern PE teacher. She is also a talented and well-informed speaker, as demonstrated by this presentation that she made to parents at a recent seminar sponsored by the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC). Smart, young, attractive, energetic, creative--and blind--Jennifer wasted no time getting to the point of her speech: PE is about movement, and everyone--blind kids, too--can move! In keeping with the philosophy that “doing” is the best way to learn, Jennifer engaged the audience in a little physical exercise to dramatize her theme. After saying “Good morning,” Jennifer moved from behind the podium, sat facing the audience--feet flat on the floor in front of her, arms to her sides, and proceeded to take us through a rigorous workout, while we remained firmly seated in our chairs. Here’s an edited version of the workout and the subsequent presentation Jennifer delivered to her attentive audience:
Good morning. We’re going to do a small activity because you guys need to move, and because that’s my job--getting people to move. If you’re sitting really close to someone spread out just a little tiny bit. Now, put your stuff on another chair or under your chair.
What I want you to do is imagine you have a disability. I don’t care if it’s vision impairment, one arm, one leg--just think of some kind of disability that you might have as you do this exercise. Okay, so follow me. Here we go. We’re walking. [Feet move in walking motion as people remain seated]. So, does someone want to tell me where he or she wants to go? Anybody? Okay. My kids usually want to go to Disneyland. But how are we going to get there? I don’t think we’re going to walk. That’s pretty far away, so let’s fly. Put your arms out to the side, be careful--don’t hit anyone in the face. Put your feet flat on the ground. We are on a runway; so we’re going to move our feet really fast until we get in the air. Are you ready? Here we go [feet move fast as everyone pretends to be the plane moving down the runway]. We’re going to take off--feet in the air, arms out--and we’re going to fly--arms wave up and down. We’re flying. Here we go. We’re flying. It’s kind of bumpy [begin bouncing in the chair]. There’s a lot of turbulence. It’s kind of bumpy [continue to bounce, twist, arms wave up and down]. Okay, we’re getting ready to land. Ready! Feet down! And they [the feet] go fast. We land. Okay.
When we go to Disneyland we like to go on rides. So we’re going to go on a roller coaster, but it has really huge stairs that we have to climb up--high knees, high stairs [knees and legs lifted up high as if climbing up steep stairs]. Here we go. We’re on the roller coaster. It’s one of those wooden ones. So we go up and down, up and down, and around to the right, and around to your left, and move all around [bob and twist torso around while remaining seated]. It’s bumpy. It’s going, it’s going--and it stops [stop movements].
Another place kids like to go is to the park. So let’s walk to the park. Here we go. Walk your feet. Oh my gosh! There’s a huge dog chasing us. Let’s go. Run fast [feet move rapidly in running motion]. Let’s go. Oh, you see someone you know; wave to them. Oh, you see someone else you know; wave with the other hand. Okay, we got rid of the dog. You can walk again. At the park we like to play some volleyball. Put both hands up by your ears and let’s bump the ball up. Up and up. It’s a fastball. It’s a faster ball. Come on! Come on! Okay [stop movements]. Now, we like to play some baseball. Hands together on a bat and bat the ball. Bat the ball on both sides--first on your right, then your left. Let’s work on our coordination--right, left. Okay, now let’s throw the ball. Throw the ball at me; throw it. Okay.
Now, we’re going to go swimming. Put your hands together, bend over, and let’s dive in the pool. Climb back up [climbing motion with hands, feet]. That was so fun; let’s dive again. Okay. Now we’re going to go swimming. Do that crawl stroke. Now, let’s do a backstroke, and a breaststroke. Okay, we’re going to kick our feet. Put your feet up in the air, and do small kicks with your feet and move your arms, too. Guess who’s chasing us? It’s Jaws! Let’s go fast. Come on; let’s go, let’s go. Okay, stop.
Now, let’s go to McDonalds. We have our food, and guess what we do? We have a food fight! So, throw the food. That’s it; throw it, throw it, throw it. Oh, the manager’s so mad at us. He’s going to make us clean it up. Put the rag in your hand and wash the walls. Wash the ceiling. Wash the floor. Okay. Now walk again, and come to a stop. [The workout is over. Jennifer returns to the head table and proceeds with her presentation.]
This is just one example of a fun physical activity you can do with children. They don’t have to be able to see anything. They don’t have to be able to walk or run anywhere, but they’re moving, aren’t they? And that is the main part of my job--to make it fun for kids to move. In fact, it’s more than a job to me; it’s my passion.
I believe that physical exercise, recreation, and sports are vital to blind and visually impaired kids. The first reason is obviously the physical reason. I don’t need to preach to you about what exercise does for your body. It helps your heart, it helps your lungs, and it gives you the energy to do what you need to do every day. Blind kids need to move and be physical active for the same health reasons that everyone else needs to move--there’s no difference.
But there are other benefits, too, and ones that I think are especially important for blind and visually impaired kids. Athletics, sports, and recreation can give you lifetime skills that are transferable to other aspects of your life; skills that can help you become successful socially and professionally.
I have been an athlete for seventeen years. I have been a competitive swimmer since the age of seven, before my vision started going bad. (My vision began going bad in grade school and I reached the legal blindness stage in late high school. Finally, in college, my visual impairment was diagnosed as Stargardt’s.) But I didn’t stop swimming. I didn’t stop competing. Regular competitions or Para-Olympics, for me the competitiveness goes on. What I learned as an athlete throughout my life gives me the confidence and ability to stand here today. I’m a certified (and employed) teacher with a bachelor’s and master’s degree because of the lessons I learned as an athlete.
First, I learned the value of motivation. After I lost a significant
amount of my vision, there were so many times that I wanted to quit. “Why do
I have to do this? It’s not fair. Everyone else can see. I can’t even tell who’s
in front of me. I can’t see the chalk board.” But athletics gave me something
to live for; it gave me lots of reasons to not give up. Athletics also gave
me the energy and endurance to handle the headaches, learning to do things differently,
and the frustration when people didn’t understand my visual loss.
Athletics also taught me perseverance. When you do sports or compete in athletics you learn to hang in there; you learn to keep going. There are many obstacles blind kids will face in life because of blindness or attitudes about blindness. Perseverance can help them overcome those obstacles. Athletics is a good way to acquire and practice perseverance.
I learned goal setting from athletic competition. That’s what life’s all about. That’s how you succeed. You set goals. You achieve them. You set more goals. You achieve them. I set goals for a bachelor’s degree. I achieved that. I set goals for a master’s degree. I achieved that. I learned goal setting in athletics, then transferred the skill into my daily life.
But most of all, through athletics I developed positive self-esteem. Having a visual impairment can really make you wonder how you fit into the rest of the world. This world is very oriented toward the sighted. It’s especially hard for kids to figure out how they fit in. Being an athlete and accomplishing your goals and succeeding makes you feel good about yourself. It gives you a purpose. Makes you feel worthwhile. Ten thousand people watched me compete in swimming at the Para-Olympics where I won a bronze medal. Talk about a self-esteem builder. It was amazing.
So, that’s the importance of fitness, of athletics. Now, how can you help your visually impaired kids or students get moving? Let me start by describing my experiences as a PE teacher at the Washington State School for the Blind.
When I came to work at the Washington State School for the Blind I knew I had a hard, challenging job ahead of me. Most of the kids were overweight and most of them didn’t move. I heard rumors that they all hated PE--“I’m not going into that class. They’ll throw a ball at my face and it’s going to hit me and it’s going to break my nose.” Those fears were so deep that I knew that something drastic had to be done.
I began by first giving all the students some fitness tests. I used the national YMCA fitness test and the Brockport fitness test (which is designed for children with disabilities) and I came up with these results. Of the sixty-one students that I tested, fifty-four percent had a body fat percentage above a healthy limit. Seventy-six percent scored below the good standard for muscular strength. Sixty-five percent were below standard for flexibility. Forty-eight percent were below standard for abdominal strength, and ninety-one percent were below a good standard for cardiovascular endurance.
So, these statistics told me that these kids are at risk for obesity and for a variety of health-threatening diseases. These kids had too much fat mass. This didn’t mean they were all fat on the outside--it’s not what you look like on the outside, it’s what’s in the inside. It’s about fat mass around the arteries, around the muscles. You can be the skinniest person on the earth and have the highest body fat percentage. These kids needed to gain muscle mass, and lose fat mass. They needed to start moving! To do this, I needed to overcome their stereotypes about PE, and I needed to make moving FUN!
So what we did at the Washington State School for the Blind was to create the Fit for Life Program. It’s a PE class, but it isn’t. It’s more like a health club. We have treadmills, stationary bikes, a swimming pool, and a gym--anything that you would find at a fitness club. When the kids come to me, I ask them, “What are you interested in?” If a kid likes to run, but doesn’t want to run with a human guide on a track, I put them on the treadmill. I show them how to use it and how to monitor their heart rate. If another kid wants to play basketball, I say, “Okay, this is a basketball. This is how it’s really played, now let’s figure out how you can play it.” They learn to run and dribble the ball, make shots. They may not be able to compete in a regulation basketball game, but they are moving, building up muscle mass, and having fun.
In the Fit for Life Program we begin with finding out what kind of physical activities each kid enjoys, because if he or she doesn’t enjoy it, he or she will not take responsibility for it, and will not do it. Once I find out what the kids like, I teach them how to access, monitor, and perform the activity. Now they love coming to PE class. They still have to dress-out, do stretching routines, do sit-ups, and things like that--but it’s okay because we do it in a fun environment. We’ve created a non-threatening “movement” environment.
I took statistics at the end of the year just to see if the program was working. We found that twenty-nine percent of all students improved their body fat percentage. This may not seem like much improvement, but when you consider that it can takes years to change body fat percentage, I think this is pretty good. Sixty-nine percent increased in muscular strength, fifty-seven percent increased in flexibility, sixty-five percent increased in abdominal strength, and forty-nine percent increased in cardiovascular endurance.
So, the statistics show it is working, and the attitudes tell me that it will keep working. No longer do we have the “I hate PE” attitudes. We don’t even call it PE anymore. It’s “Fitness Time;” it’s very social, very movement oriented, and it’s a lot of fun.
That’s what we do at the Washington School for the Blind. So,
what can you do with your kids? When parents and educators ask me what sports
or recreation blind kids can do, or how they can get blind students interested,
I tell them to do the four Es: expose, excite, explore, and engage.
The first “E” is expose--expose your kids to physical activity. It doesn’t matter what it is; expose them to everything--basketball, swimming, soccer, wrestling--you name it. Most of us can watch games on TV and learn about the game, but what about the kid who can’t see it? They need you to explain what’s going on, explain the rules, show them, and let them try it. Your kid may not care, but that doesn’t matter--do it anyway. They have to be exposed to lots of things before they can find something that is exciting to them.
Which brings us to the second “E,” get them excited. Show excitement yourself, and nurture the interest your kids show in an activity. If your kid likes to play in the water, follow up on it. That interest can turn into excitement and excitement can lead to swimming lessons, and maybe even competitive swimming. So first expose them, then excite them.
The third “E” is explore. Explore ways to adapt this activity so your kid can participate to the fullest extent possible. This isn’t as hard as you may think. Some activities need little or no adaptations and some need a lot. There is no one single way to adapt an activity, either. Your child may need a different adaptation than another blind or visually impaired child doing the same thing. Be creative. Problem-solve. Don’t stop if the first thing you try doesn’t work. Keep trying until you find something that works. That’s how you adapt things. There’s no magical answer. There are specific rules regarding adaptations for certain competitive sports, but until your child gets to that point, there’s no need to follow rigid rules and guidelines. Your kids just need to explore and experience.
The fourth “E” is engage. Engage your kids in a variety of activities at many different levels. Get them to move, play with other kids from school or the neighborhood. Get them involved in local clubs and organizations. Join the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA). They have affiliate chapters all around the country. They can help your child develop the skills needed to become a better athlete, to become a better person. Sign your kids up for a summer sports camp. There are sports camps all around the nation--regular sports camps, sports camps for blind kids, and sports camps for disabled kids. We are very fortunate at the Washington School for the Blind in that we won a grant to have our first-ever blind sports camp on campus this summer. So, engage--find ways to make recreation a part of your child’s routine life.
So, those are the four “Es.” There is one more thing I think you need to do--help your kid find a hero. Sighted adults and kids have lots of possible sports heroes. Who’s the blind athlete’s hero? Who can be a role model for your kid? There are many athletes out there who have visual impairments who have accomplished many things--find them.
I’m really fortunate that I get to be a role model for the kids that I teach. I just say, “This is really good for you.” And, you know what? They go do it because they respect me. If I say a blind or visually impaired kid can do something, they know it’s true because I’m visually impaired, I’ve gone through the training, and I know what it takes. I didn’t win my bronze medal by chance. I worked for it. I teach them how they can work for things, too.
To summarize, remember to implement the four “Es”--expose, excite, explore, engage--find some blind athlete role models/heroes, but whatever you do…get your blind kids moving!
Originally published in Future Reflections, Volume 22, Number 1.
by Melissa Williamson
Editor’s Note: Melissa Williamson shatters more than a few stereotypes. For example, cheerleaders are typically portrayed as cute, perky, outgoing, and--of course--dumb and stuck-up. Well, Mrs. Williamson is not and never has been either dumb or stuck-up. However, she is still as cute, as perky, as outgoing--and as blind--as she was about two decades ago during her cheerleading days. Today, Melissa Williamson is an experienced elementary school teacher, a mother of three, and a well-known leader at the state and national levels of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). In the following presentation, which Melissa made to parents at a recent NFB convention, Williamson talks about an ordinary high school coach who had no special training in matters of blindness, but who made an extraordinary difference in her life. Her advice and insights are relevant and timely. Here is what she has to say:
Sometimes as a blind person I get lucky enough to encounter a sighted person who, in regard to the capabilities of blind people, just gets it. I met one of those people in the form of my PE coach in sixth grade. He worked with me from sixth through eighth grade in the public school system where I was mainstreamed. At a time when I didn’t quite get it, Coach John got it.
Up to that point in my life I had been physically active. I was a decent gymnast and I water-skied. I played outside, but I did not participate in team activities, and I did not intentionally modify any sport so that I could play. Therefore, when the coach said we were going to play whiffle ball, which is a game something like baseball for those of you who don’t know, I thought that he meant that “they” were going to play whiffle ball. He didn’t. With some modifications, I played. The coach put people on the bases to call to me so that I would know where to run. He watched my batting swing enough to know where to throw the ball so my bat would actually hit it. I played, and because I played I came to understand how to swing a bat and how to run bases. I understood whiffle ball, but I still didn’t get it.
When Coach John said we were going to play football, I thought he meant that “they” were going to play football. He didn’t. I learned to pass a football with a sighted guide; I learned to run passing routes, to hand-off the ball, and how to receive a hand-off. By spring of sixth grade, I finally got it.
It was time for those who were interested to prepare for cheerleading tryouts. My friends were interested. I was kind of interested, but I was scared, too. I showed up for the first day of practice. Coach John, who was the cheerleading sponsor, didn’t miss a beat even though he had no idea I was coming. (My mom wasn’t even sure I was going to do it.) As he demonstrated various techniques involved in cheering, he also described them. When he talked about the various positions of hands, he showed me. He explained that jazz hands were splayed fingers. He explained that candlestick hands were hands held up like you were holding candlesticks. He showed me everything I needed to know. When he demonstrated a cheer, I stood behind him with my hands on his arms. As we worked on the cheers in small groups, he came by and corrected our mistakes. He corrected me just as he corrected the others. I made the squad both years that I tried out. Incidentally, Coach John was not one of the cheerleading selection judges.
I experienced full inclusion in my physical education class. My PE teacher understood that alternative techniques were equal for the purposes of education--even physical education. I cannot fully describe how my confidence grew from experiences made possible by this teacher--a teacher who seemed to instinctively understand that blindness is a nuisance, but not an insurmountable tragedy.
Participation in physical activities is crucial for maintaining physical fitness. We all know this. But just as importantly, participation in PE classes on an equal level with peers is a means of achieving self-confidence and, to some degree, social acceptance. Kids who play together early on have shared experiences. These shared experiences (which often turn into shared interests) can spawn friendships as time passes. Furthermore, a blind child gains an experiential understanding of sports and other recreational activities when he or she actively participates in a structured PE program. This can be a social asset in our somewhat sports-obsessed nation. But of most significance is the confidence children can gain from participating in PE. Through physical activities, children--blind as well as sighted--gain coordination; they gain the ability to move their bodies confidently and intentionally to achieve a particular goal. This impacts the way a child carries himself or herself. And, realistically, a child who moves and acts confidently is more likely to make friends and less likely to be a target for bullies.
Additionally, the skills a child gains in PE will be used in many ways, some unpredictable, throughout that child’s life. For example, I learned that when I throw a ball I should point my nose and the toes of my front foot toward the spot I intended the ball to go. It works. I became quite good at trashcan basketball in high school. You know--the teacher leaves the room and the students make paper-wads and throw them at the trashcan. I got good at it. Now I use that same skill to throw baseballs for my own kids so they can practice batting and catching. (To my kids’ dismay, however, I still can’t catch a baseball, and they’ll gladly tell you about that.)
However, more experience is needed in the outdoors than can be gained in a PE class. It’s vital that we give our blind kids the same kinds of opportunities that our sighted kids have. The other day my husband and I took our children to Chucky Cheese for a birthday party. It rained prior to our arrival so as we were walking toward the building across the parking lot, my sons began jumping into every puddle they could find--half-inch deep? Splash! Four-inches deep? Splash! They did not care. I started to stop them, and then I realized that puddles just seem to call to kids. They say, “Jump right in. Splash as far and as high as you can!” Mud puddles call to kids, too, not just water puddles. Mud puddles call to kids to muck about in it and make mud pies. Fences and trees beg to be climbed. Flowers call to be picked. Rocks call to be thrown (particularly if there’s water around). And large open spaces call to kids to run. Our blind kids need to do all of these things--to experience the joys of the outdoors to the fullest.
But for blind kids we must think outside and beyond the traditional outdoor kid play. Blind kids don’t need to have a stick bug described to them; they need to touch it. My experience suggests that that’s what sighted kids want to do anyway. It’s the same for worms, just-caught fish, caterpillars, plants, and anything else that we can imagine for them to touch. Our blind kids need to get messy. They need to get dirty. They need to get wet. They need to experience.
Let me give you a concrete example that will, hopefully, illustrate my point. I’ve heard since I was a kid that giant redwoods in California are huge. I know that these trees can be over one hundred feet tall and six feet or more in diameter. But until I attempted to put my arms around one of these trees, I had no concept of how big a BIG tree really is! Honestly, I still can’t fathom what a one hundred foot tall tree might look like. I said that to my husband last night and he said that we needed to go find one for me to climb. (My husband is one of those sighted guys who get it.) There’s no description on earth that can compensate for touch. Touch can make objects real, just as physical education experiences can make sports and concepts of space and dimension real.
We don’t just want to give blind kids the same childhood experiences as sighted kids. We want to--we must--give them more. Sighted kids don’t need encouragement to climb a fence. They climb them because they are there, they see them, and what else are you going to do with a fence if you are a little kid? But our blind kids don’t have that visual incentive, so they might need our active encouragement to climb fences and trees and play with worms. The more experiences they have when they are little, the stronger their knowledge-base about the world, and the stronger their confidence. And with this knowledge and confidence, they will eventually be ready to strike out and explore on their own. Certainly this can only help them to be more successful as they grow.
Originally published in Future Reflections, Volume 22, Number 1.
by Angelo Montagnino
Editor’s Note: Angelo “Monte” Montagnino taught movement, games, and recreation skills to blind children for over three decades. He was also, for many years, the head coach of the Association for Blind Athletes in New Jersey. The following piece is a slightly edited version of an earlier article originally published in the Volume 20, Number 4, issue of Future Reflections.
Learn About the
Student’s Eye Disorder
Check the student’s records to see if any physical limitations are imposed on him. Take advantage of any residual vision the student might have. Find out if the child sees better under certain lighting conditions. Some children prefer incandescent light (yellow light) to fluorescent light (white light). Others may desire high intensity lamps to do detail work or require a high degree of light to best see a target, while some children are bothered by the glare of bright light.
Since the main avenue of learning for many blind or visually impaired children is through hearing, verbal instructions should be given when demonstrating a skill. Give clear, concise, and consistent directions. Say what it is you are actually doing in body-oriented language. For example, when teaching a child to hop, say, “Stand on your left foot, raise your right foot, and jump in the air on your left foot.” Use directional words such as, “right,” and, “left.” Cite large landmarks in the playing area to guide a low vision child: “Walk to the exit door, turn toward the window.” Using terms like, “quarter turn,” “half turn,” or “full turn,” may be helpful. Use tactual, hands-on demonstrations with verbal instruction. Describe where things are by using the face of a clock for orientation. For example, with the child at a six o’clock orientation, you might say, “The water fountain is at seven o’clock, twelve feet away.”
Use Movement as
a Mode for Learning
Guide the student but do not overprotect him. It is much better for a child to get a few bumps and bruises by interacting with his environment than to let inactivity stagnate his body. By moving and physically interacting with his environment, the blind or visually impaired child has another way to learn about himself and his world.
Give the Student
Physically Active Roles
Try to avoid having students only participating as scorekeepers or timers in a game. They need the physical activity. See to it that the blind or visually impaired child is totally active during his gym period. Try to work the student into at least part of the game or enjoy and experience the activity with another student.
Allow the Student
to See or Touch Demonstrations
A child with low vision may be able to observe procedures if he is near enough to the demonstration. For the totally blind child or child with unreliable vision, the demonstrator or some other participant may have to position the child’s body or allow the child to touch another person in the correct position and give more verbal explanations. Allowing the child to perform the activity with individual guidance is also helpful.
Provide a Fun and
Give the student an orientation to the area in which he and others will be playing. Help him discover where large pieces of equipment are placed. If equipment is moved into a different location, help him find where it is relocated and its relationship to walls and other equipment.
Beware of Flying
The surprise element of not knowing where the ball is going in a fast-moving ball or flying-object type game can result in frustration and grave consequences for the blind or visually impaired youngster.
Make Use of Partners
In many activities and games, a partner can greatly enhance the enjoyment and safety for the blind or visually impaired student.
Within reason, experiment and see what works best for the blind or visually impaired student. Each student has his own unique abilities and difficulties. Don’t underestimate his ability.
Consult with the blind or visually impaired child to determine activity preference and to decide which activities might be safe. As mentioned earlier, there are eye conditions that may limit a child’s activity. This should be discussed with the parent, physician, or low vision specialist. Consultation with these persons will give the recreation specialist a great deal of information about the needs, interests, and abilities of the child. For example, children who are at high risk for a detached retina should not participate in contact sports or diving. Children with diabetes may be advised to avoid certain sports or to increase their daily exercise gradually.
Modify the Rules
of the Game
Rules may be modified to accommodate visual limitation but care should be taken not to alter the basic structure of the game if at all possible. For example, in volleyball, the ball may be permitted to bounce once, or the blind or visually impaired student may take one serve before each team begins serving. The student will want the activity to remain as close to its original form as possible.
Use Special Equipment
In some cases, special equipment is desirable to facilitate the full participation of the child in a given activity. This equipment can be purchased from a supplier or can be developed by the physical education or recreation specialist. In archery, for instance, an auditory signal can be placed behind the target. When developing modified equipment, it is advisable to seek the assistance of the blind or visually impaired child. For example, the student may or may not want to use a balloon or beach ball in place of the regulation ball.
Suggested Adaptations for Development of Fundamental Skills
Encourage the student to
move and explore.
Focus on how the body moves by bending, stretching, turning, swinging, and curling the body by itself and in relationship to objects and other people. Help students to become aware of their body and the ways in which it can move. A good movement vocabulary will help the child to learn new skills more efficiently.
Teach the child to jump, land, and roll while standing in place, while moving, and while jumping off equipment. This is a good safety skill that will help the child become more confident because he will then know that he can handle himself on a spill.
Go from the less difficult to the more difficult skills and break down skills into their component parts.
For example, to teach the child to catch a ball, begin by bouncing the ball to the child from a short distance away. Gradually increase the distance. Then decrease the distance again, but eliminate the bounce. Finally, increase the distance again. A large, lightweight, soft ball will help.
Be aware of the child’s previous experiences in recreation and other areas. Some blind or visually impaired children have not developed activity skills because they were never given opportunities to participate in play. Thus, the physical education/recreation specialist may need to begin with basic skills before involving the child in regular play activities.
Limit the playing space.
Table tennis is an example of a game with a limited area that a child with a narrow visual field may be able to enjoy. Playing games in a small gym or a handball court may facilitate greater involvement for the blind or visually impaired child without greatly distorting the experience for the normally sighted participants.
Slow down the action.
For example, instead of a regular ball, a balloon may be used in a game of catch. A child with a field loss may be able to keep the balloon in the central portion of vision because it is moving with less speed.
Use larger or smaller playing
For example, a beach ball can be used to play volleyball. If the child has an acuity loss he may be able to see the object when he is far away from it if it is larger than regulation size. Also, targets can be made larger or moved closer to the player. If the eye condition has resulted in limited visual field, it may be helpful to use a smaller ball or move the target further away so it can be seen in the field of vision.
Use proper lighting and color contrast.
A ball can be taped with bright yellow/orange fluorescent or black tape, so that it contrasts with the floor and walls. A shuttlecock can be painted a bright color to contrast with a playing court. Colored tape can be used to mark the playing areas. Contrasting colors can also be used for table games.
As previously discussed, find out if the child sees better under certain lighting conditions. It is also helpful to discuss with the child what factors may be visually distracting. For example, some children are bothered by stripes, polka dots, certain plaids or colors, strobe lights, and lights reflecting off glass.
Have the person who is “it” wear on the wrists or ankles an elastic band with bells on it, or maintain verbal contact while pursuing the blind or visually impaired student. Alternatively, you can buddy the student with a helper.
Provide a change in the floor texture. For example, place a rubber carpet runner or tumbling mats next to the wall so that the child knows when he steps onto the changed surface that he is stepping out of bounds. The change in surface is also a warning signal to him that a wall or object is coming up so he needs to put on the brakes. The child will move much more freely if he knows that hazardous objects are not in the playing area.
Throwing and Catching
Before throwing the ball, give the receiver a sound clue. A bounce pass will be easier to receive than a direct pass. Utilize large heavy balloons to slow down the speed of the ball. The use of yarn balls, fluff balls, and nerf balls lessens the impact of a direct hit to the body. These should be used when playing the popular game dodge ball. When throwing at a target, provide a sound reinforcement such as a bells behind the target. Beepers can also be used, or just have someone strike the target as a sound cue.
Striking and Hitting
To practice striking skills, place a ball on a tee or have a ball suspended from the ceiling. If you want the ball to move through space upon hitting it, use Velcro. Place Velcro on the end of a rope suspended from the ceiling. Then, place matching Velcro tape onto a light-weight ball with a bell in it. The ball will stay attached to the rope until it is struck or hit by a bat or other object. In this way, the child will learn about the projection of the ball as well as how to control his hit in determining the power and direction in which the ball will go. The student may also use a slow motion ball or large whiffle ball and oversize plastic bat. A ball can be rolled on a table or the floor. A large ball or a large wiffle ball with several small bells placed inside it makes an excellent rolling target.
Partners can provide safe assistance in running. They may hold hands or use brush contact (lightly touching hand or forearm to the partner’s hand, wrist, or any part of the arm). Another technique is for the blind or visually impaired student and guide runner to each hold the end or loop of a flexible piece of material. Alternatively, the loop can be placed over the guide’s right wrist and the blind student’s left wrist. For a short run, a blind runner may be able to run toward a “caller.” A student can also run by himself by holding onto a rope or wire stretched out between two points. Provide a warning signal about eight feet from each end. If tape is wrapped around the rope, the student can quickly turn at that point and continue a shuttle run.
Body Centered or Individual Sports and Activities
These activities are most valuable for the blind or visually impaired student and require very little change. Give explicit body oriented instructions such as “to your left,” or “pull elbow into sides,” or “reach forward and then up.”
Line dances--One line, everyone holding hands.
Novelty dances--All doing same movements in own self-space.
Partner dances--Maintain body or voice contact.
Modern or Jazz--Give student a specific boundary area that is free of obstacles.
Aerobic dance--Step aerobics and basic movements are great. When needed, provide extra verbal instruction and up-close or hands-on demonstration.
Vaulting--Start with hands on vault or use a one-step approach.
Beam--Encourage bare feet or light slippers; practice using a long strip of carpet the same size as the beam on the floor.
Tumbling--Provide an area free of objects; create a buffer area around the exercise mat to give a warning of upcoming obstacles. The mat should be of the best color contrast. A verbal cue will help the student to keep going straight and be a signal for the blind tumbler when he approaches the end of the mat.
Provide a tactual floor cue, such as a long board or sidewalk, which is perpendicular to the target. Position the student so he/she is standing sideward to tactual floor cue. Provide a sound cue below or in front of target. Help student zero in on target by telling him to move bow to the left, right, up, or down. Use large traffic cones about one-third distance to help a partially sighted student to locate the target.
Use a handrail with the free hand to guide bowler in a straight path toward pins. Square student up with pins. Give immediate feedback as to how many pins are knocked down.
Square student up with ball and target. Help the student get the side of his body facing the target. A sound or visual cue can be used. Student should wait for an “all clear” signal before swinging.
When swimming the front crawl along the side of the pool, watch that the student doesn’t bump his head against the wall. Teach him to use a delayed arm stroke as he anticipates the upcoming wall. Make the racing lane about three feet wide in order to give immediate input to the student about the direction of his stroke in relation to a straight line. When diving, have the student request an “all clear” signal before taking his dive.
Track and Field
Run tandem with a sighted guide (use “brush” or “holding” contact with a guide). In high jumping use a one-step approach; some students may be able to take more than one step and be successful at clearing the bar. The hop, step, and jump and the long jump can be attempted from a standing start. Provide a sound source from the direction to which you want the student to move.
The discus and shot-put require the use of a sound clue (clap, beeper, or counting) from the direction you want the object released. Some partially sighted students may not need any modification and some may need a visual cue to see the jump board or the bar.
Use a hand-touch start. Whenever body contact is lost, start again in the stance position with the hand-touch.
Popular Team Sports
Although the actual game of most team sports can be quite difficult for total involvement of a blind or visually impaired student, most of the fundamental skills of each sport can easily be taught to the student and then modified games played. The game should not be changed so much that it no longer resembles the intended game. Placing the focus on the basic skills of the sport not only benefits the blind child but also helps improve the sighted students’ skills. Try to find the best position or part of the game for the blind or visually impaired student to play and participate in.
Focus on dribbling skills. Blind or visually impaired children can become very skilled at dribbling a ball in different directions and while supported on different body parts. Make up short ball-handling and dribbling routines.
During free throws, position the student at the free throw line and give a clapping sound clue while standing directly under the basket. With some exploration and trial and error, the student will learn at what angle he must release the ball in order to make a basket. If needed, tap the rim with the ball once or twice. If needed, protect the student from a rebound.
A beeper can be placed at the back rim of the basket and the student can use this sound source to shoot his basket. A small carpet square can be stuck to the free throw line. The student can dribble around the court and when he gets to the carpet square, he can then turn to the sound source and shoot. Blind or visually impaired students can also be designated special foul shooters.
When playing with a partner or group, be sure to warn the blind student of an upcoming pass. For example, “Hey, Todd,” (get attention, pause) “catch”(then pass the ball). When passing the ball, the use of a bounce pass gives additional warning.
Practice hitting a ball off of a tee or from a suspended rope (see the discussion earlier about using Velcro to attach a bell-ball to a rope). First use the hand and then practice with a bat.
Playing in the field can be extremely hazardous, but some blind or visually impaired students may be able to safely play the field, especially with a good buddy.
A good choice is to be a designated hitter for both teams. The use of foam balls or wiffle balls and rubber or plastic bats can provide a much safer environment and the game can also be played indoors. Be a designated batter for both teams. Bat off tee if needed, run to the foul side of first if needed. Run with a partner. The partner is on the inside. Get behind the partner or buddy if on third.
Run bases with a sighted guide. Avoid having someone else run for the blind child. He needs the running activity.
Kick at a stationary ball if needed. Be a designated kicker for both teams.
A blind or visually impaired student can learn to deliver the ball in a good underhand pitch while the catcher gives him a sound clue. Have a defensive player to the side and several feet closer to a blind or visually impaired pitcher.
If needed, a beep soccer ball is available.
Alternatively, use a box about one foot square. The child can hear where the box is sliding to; when the sound stops, so has the movement of the box. The child can easily locate the box and kick it again.
A milk carton with bells in it is also a fun item to kick and track. (Keep-away games can also be easily made up with a partner or small group teams.)
A tin can with pebbles in it can be utilized when playing outside on an asphalt or concrete surface.
Make use of the same hitting items as in soccer.
Allow the blind or visually impaired student to use the goalies wider and flatter stick (the greater surface area will aid the student in finding the puck or ball).
Practice lead-up skills of volleying with the use of a large, heavy balloon. The slower speed of the balloon gives the partially sighted student a better chance to track the balloon. This activity could provide more success for sighted children, also.
Modified games can be played with a sponge ball, Nerf ball, beach ball, or large balloon. Partially sighted players may stay up-close to the net, or may be able to do everything without modifications under ideal or good visual conditions. A blind or visually impaired student can be a designated server. The team gets their regular serves in addition to the designated serve. A totally blind student should be given a chance to learn all the striking fundamentals with a good toss and a strike command.
Often blind children are excluded from the physical education activities of their peers, or are denied physical activity coursework outright. It is not as if the teachers are malevolent sources of authority, bent on hurting children’s self-esteem and physical well-being. Instead, it is usually from a lack of training, knowledge, and resource availability.
In 2006, the National Federation of the Blind of California (NFB/CA) recognized a need for greater access to physical education for blind children. At their convention last year, they passed a resolution demanding such access in the form of adequately trained teachers. In order to make this result a reality, Chad Allen, the legislative representative for the NFB/CA, contacted Senator Jeff Denham of California’s 12th District and found a proud supporter of such legislation.
As a result, on February 1, 2007, Senator Denham introduced Senate Bill 168. If passed, the bill would create an advisory task force to develop guidelines for physical education teachers with blind students. This task force would be comprised of experts in the field of both blindness and physical education, and would, according to Mr. Allen, “develop a guide of best practices which will allow for teachers of physical education to become more aware of some methods already used to ensure blind children equal access to the curriculum of their physical education class.” The task force would be required to report to the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Governor, and the Legislature by June 30, 2009.
“Childhood obesity is at epidemic proportions in our county. This bill gives local educators the tools they need to effectively teach physical education to blind and visually impaired students,” said Senator Denham.
It should be stressed that if the legislation is enacted, these
guidelines would not be standards but a resource to be used by the teachers
to best involve their blind students in physical education. “As always,” Mr.
Allen explains, “it will still be the responsibility of the student, parent
and teacher relationship to ensure that the child is actively participating
in their curriculum effectively.”
“If SB 168 passes and a resource guide is developed here in California, parents, teachers, administrators, and counselors will have access to written examples of some of the most successful and effective practices in physical education with respect to blind children. This resource guide will enable students to participate effectively in the classroom, further empowering them to be successful in their educational experiences.”
As we go to press SB 168 has been unanimously passed in the Senate and has been sent to the Assembly where it is currently in committee. While the guide is for California public instructors, Mr. Allen expects it to be used as a model for other states as well.
by Curtis Anderson
Reprinted from the Register Guard, Oregon, Tuesday, February 8, 2005.
Editor’s Note: If you are a blind kid, like Megan Smith in this story, it’s hard sometimes to know how you stack up against others. It’s the “isn’t it amazing” syndrome--when people are amazed that you as a blind person can function in the most ordinary ways and perform the most ordinary tasks, how do you know when your performance really is extraordinary and praiseworthy? Sports competitions can provide much needed definition. Although the following news article occasionally succumbs to the “isn’t it amazing” reaction to blindness to which newspapers are prone, Megan Smith herself seems to have developed a realistic sense of how her accomplishments compare to others, and her own comments often counter the hype of the reporting. Here is the story about Megan and her swim team:
Megan Smith will have two chances to perform at this year’s Midwestern League district swim championships. The fifteen-year-old freshman from Sheldon High School will open the meet at Springfield’s Willamalane Pool on Friday by singing the national anthem. Later in the day, she will take her spot on the starting blocks for qualifying heats of both the 50- and 100-yard freestyle events.
Smith harbors no qualms about her first assignment. She is an accomplished singer and a member of the Sheldon varsity choir. However, she’s never quite sure what to expect when she dives into the pool. After all, she has been blind since birth.
“Singing is something I’ve done in front of big crowds since I was five years old. Hopefully, I’m better at that than swimming,” she said with a laugh. “I came out to make friends, to branch out a little bit. It’s been hard at times, but everybody on the team has been great. They all help me out.”
Not that Smith requires an abundance of assistance. Tenacious, determined, and fearless of new situations, she has, with minimal aid, been downhill skiing at Mount Bachelor and rock climbing in Central Oregon. She played T-ball as a youngster--she ran the bases with a sighted guide--and attends camp each summer. An excellent student who gets As and Bs in the Sheldon honors program, Smith can play the violin and flute, but has set those instruments aside to focus on singing. And now, she may have found another comfort zone.
“Megan has always loved the water,” said her mom, Beth Smith. “It’s the great equalizer for her. Even sighted people have to deal with water. I was pleasantly surprised when she said she wanted to be on the swim team. It’s been wonderful. She’s made some nice friends and found a niche.”
There were concerns, of course, the most obvious being how to prevent Smith from crashing into the wall. Most blind swimmers make use of a “tapper,” a long pole or stick with a tennis ball attached to the end. When a swimmer nears the end of the pool, a person on the deck reaches out with the tapper and touches the swimmer on the back, head, or shoulder to indicate that the wall is approaching. But Smith, who is wiry and deceptively strong at 4-foot-10 and 85 pounds, has her own solution.
“I can hear the wall,” she said. “I know it sounds strange, but the water goes off the wall and I can hear that. I’ve used my hearing instead of my eyes since I was born and those other senses have developed.” However, she admitted, “sometimes when I’m swimming fast, I forget about that. I’ve hurt my hand a bunch of times.”
That pales in comparison with what Smith endured as a child. Megan Smith met Lauren Joli while singing in the Sheldon choir program. Joli urged Smith to try swimming, and the two are now teammates, despite Smith’s blindness. Joli helps Smith navigate the pool deck, one of the few concessions Smith makes to her condition. She was born in Grass Valley, California, with a condition known as bilateral microthalmia, which means her eyes never developed. She also had a herniated abdomen that required surgery on her stomach when she was twenty-four hours old, followed by sixteen days in the neo-natal intensive care unit in Sacramento. At age two, she underwent open-heart surgery to correct a heart murmur.
The Smiths moved to Oregon before Megan entered grade school, and one of the most important reasons was that Eugene was known as a place with tremendous resources for visually impaired children.
“Megan is battle-tested and she has the scars to prove it,” said her father, Kevin Smith, a teacher at Danebo Elementary School.
“As a teacher, I see things that are missing in education today, but the special education opportunities which exist for kids are unbelievable. They’ve allowed her to lead a normal, mainstreamed life. If those things had not happened back in the 1970s, she might be in an institution.”
“You have a choice,” added Beth Smith, who works with the autism program at Cesar Chávez Elementary School. “You can sit the child on a pillow and protect them, or raise them to be independent. Megan doesn’t want to be known for what she can’t do. One of her responsibilities in life is to educate people, to let them know that being blind is not as bad as we imagine it is.”
On this subject, Megan Smith gets the last word. “Sometimes I want to tell people to back off,” she said. “It’s good they want to help, but I want to tell them, ‘I can do this, let me do it.’”
For Scott Kerr and Trevor Hoke, co-head coaches of the Sheldon swim team, Smith has provided a unique challenge to their coaching abilities, plus a level of courage that inspires the entire squad.
“Megan is tough,” Hoke said. “She wants to be treated just like everybody else, and if you don’t do that, she’ll let you know.”
At first, Hoke maintained a constant vigilance over Smith, walking
up and down the side of the pool with every length she swam. More recently,
he has been able to loosen the reins, trusting her teammates to provide assistance.
And that’s exactly what happened. During practice, they tell her “stop” when
she nears the wall, and they let her know when it’s time to begin her laps.
They adjust her swim cap when it becomes slightly askew and offer an escort
At the loud and chaotic swim meets, there is always somebody at Smith’s side to keep her posted on who’s swimming which event, and to help walk her to the starting blocks. And even though she can “hear” the wall, they gladly take turns at each end of the pool during her events as an extra safeguard.
“Megan has a great personality and the whole team loves her,” said sophomore Lauren Joli, who first encouraged Smith to try out for the swim team after the two became friends in choir class.
“She’s amazing. She learned how to dive off the blocks perfectly the first day, and it took some of us two or three days. And she always knows where the wall is. Sometimes we ask her, ‘Megan, are you sure you’re blind?’”
Kerr has been astounded at Smith’s learning curve. In just a couple of months, she has progressed from a “pinball machine that would bounce from the lane line to the wall” all the way down the pool to swimming “incredibly straight.” Her personal bests are 44.29 seconds in the 50-yard freestyle and 1:44.49 in the 100 free, but both Kerr and Hoke expect those times to drop significantly once she learns how to do a flip turn in competition. At one dual meet earlier this season, Smith’s time in the 50 freestyle was faster than one other swimmer, and her delightful sense of humor prompted this response: “Oh gosh, it sucks to lose to a blind girl.”
The Sheldon swim coaches have ambitious goals for Smith.
“By the end of her senior year, we want Megan to be able to swim every single event,” Hoke said. “The biggest thing for me is to make sure I don’t just do an OK job. I want to do a really good job with her and make sure she has a lot of fun. We want her to be looking forward to getting back in the water next November.”
Kerr is most impressed with Smith’s inner drive and motivation.
“Megan doesn’t see any obstacles at all, and I wish we all had that outlook in life,” he said. “When I tell kids they’re going to learn the butterfly, their first response is usually ‘I can’t do that.’ Megan’s first words are ‘Okay.’ The inspiration she has given our program is incredible, and her demeanor is so positive, she makes a rosy day for everybody. I’m sure she has down days, but I haven’t seen one yet.”
When Kerr first found out that Smith planned to join the swim team, he called a friend with the U.S. Paralympic team. For athletes with disabilities, the Paralympics are the equivalent of the Olympic Games. At the time, Kerr wanted to discuss safety issues, but now he plans another consultation once the season is over.
“For people of her ability and experience, Megan is probably one of the top swimmers right now,” Kerr said. “Who knows? With a couple more years, she could be one of the elite, and in four years, we could see Megan Smith at the Paralympics.”
While Smith, a first-year swimmer, has never even considered such a scenario, there are competitive opportunities for blind swimmers.
According to Jennifer Butcher, a bronze medalist for the U.S. Paralympic team at the 2000 Sydney Games, the qualifying time for the 50-meter freestyle in the S11 category (no sight at all) is 32 seconds, which converts to 27 or 28 seconds in yards.
“(Megan’s) times tell me that she is just starting. But if she really likes swimming, she could easily train and get there in no time,” said Butcher, a health and physical education teacher at the Washington State School for the Blind. “The (S11) class is small right now and we’re looking for people.”
Butcher was a competitive swimmer at Linfield College before she lost her eyesight to Stargardt’s disease, the same degenerative disorder that afflicts Eugene’s world-class runner, Marla Runyan.
“The possibilities for her are endless if she wants to do this,” said Butcher, who is now retired from swimming. “I competed in able-bodied swimming before I lost my eyesight and I figured my swim career was over. But then I found out about disabled swimming, and it has taken me all over the world. That’s why I get so excited when someone new comes into the sport.”
No matter what the future holds, Smith is determined to lead her own life.
“I like to be as active as I can and do as many things as I can,” she said. “The only thing I can’t really do is see. There may be adaptations for sports because of that, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do them.”
by David Wright
Editor’s Note: David Wright is serving this summer as an intern in Baltimore, Maryland, at the National Center for the Blind, headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind. He will return to school this fall to the University of Illinois at Chicago where he is pursuing a degree in Kinesiology and Psychology. David’s story about sports and competition and the role they’ve played in his young life speaks for itself. Here is David:
As far back as I can remember I’ve always had an interest in physical activities. Like any active kid, I enjoyed climbing trees, swinging from ropes (pretending that I was Tarzan), and jumping off the garage roof (hoping that I could fly). I also read a lot of books, and as a result, I had a tremendously active imagination. The one aspect of childhood that set me apart from other children was that, at the age of six, I was adopted from an orphanage in Vietnam, and only three weeks after relocating to America, I found out that I would eventually go blind.
Despite the pains and frustrations that came as a result of my degenerating vision, I was a very resilient child and adapted easily. My parents did the best they could to make sure that I received the best education both at home and in school. For the most part, my parents were pretty open-minded when it came to encouraging me to participate in mainstream activities that had to do with academics and music. However, when it came to physical activities such as sports, I was often left on the sidelines. When I asked why, the answer was always something to do with people not wanting me to get hurt, or some such thing.
I suppose I was taught early, like many blind children, that I was different and that I had no future. I remember my kindergarten teacher asking me one day what I wanted to be when I grew up. Innocently, I told the class that I wanted to be a detective, an inventor, a martial artist like Bruce Lee, or maybe an astronaut. Needless to say I went home crying that day because a lot of the kids laughed at me and asked how I was going to do those things when I couldn’t even see clearly. Some of the children thought it was funny that I dreamed of flying airplanes and helicopters.
As you may imagine I went through elementary school with very few friends, but the ones I did make were open-minded and dared to dream with me. I spent many a day at recess learning from my friends how to get into a variety of trouble: walking on top of the monkey bars, jumping off the swings to see who could go the farthest, and climbing fences. Those days of physical mischievousness helped me to realize that I really could compete physically with my sighted peers.
Despite the uneducated assumptions from so many people (including my parents) about what I could not do, I had a deep-seated determination to succeed and to prove to myself that I could be equal to my sighted peers. In order to understand the rest of my story though, I must digress a bit. My determination was severely tested in my early teenage years, a time of unrelenting depression and despair over my vision loss.
At the age of thirteen I lost the rest of my vision, and it took a few years for me to realize that when one door closes, another is opened. During the years that followed, I went through a number of pretty big life changes: I was placed into a group home by my parents, I relocated to a new and immensely larger school system, and I competed on a regular high-school gymnastics team. Although I am usually a pretty optimistic person now, my placement into a group home by my parents when they were unable to handle my depression, caused me to sink deeper into depression. I remember spending many nights lying awake and wondering what I had done to deserve this retribution from my parents and from God.
In the end, I was able to rise above my feelings of depression by diving into my academics and getting involved in as many extracurricular activities as I could. Many of these activities played an important role in developing my independence skills and my confidence. Although I spent much of my high school career attempting to find ways to avoid being at the group home, as I look back on it, I believe being there forced me to hone my level of independence. Now, back to my story.
My love for sports began with my fascination for martial arts. It seemed to me that in every mystery novel I read, all of the detectives were proficient in karate or some form of fighting art. So I figured, in order for me to be a good detective, I too must learn how to throw my weight around. I remember also wanting to learn how to play your traditional sports, such as basketball, football, and soccer. However, I was always excluded from these activities both in school and at home because of my lack of sight.
Throughout my school years, I fought the school system to remain in mainstream physical education classes. Although I managed to convince my counselors most of the time to let me in the regular classes, I was often forced to sit on the sidelines and not allowed to participate in the day’s activities. Exclusion from team building activities made me feel that I was unwanted and incapable of participating in normal sports. I lost my struggle with the school system to remain in mainstream physical education when I relocated to the group home in the western suburbs of Chicago. But when one door closes, another opens. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I discovered that my high school had a wrestling team.
Although my parents discouraged me from joining the team, I managed to gain their grudging approval with the help of my therapist. When I walked into the wrestling room for the first time, I wish I could have seen the look on my head coach’s face. Some of the other team members told me later that he looked confused and slightly annoyed, as if I were wasting his time. My coach soon learned that I was just as hard working and capable as any of the other members on the team. I ended up wrestling from my sophomore through my junior years, winning more than I lost.
Then, in the winter of my sophomore year, I was talking to one of my new friends during lunch about blindness. He was curious and amazed at my level of independence; he wanted to know how come all blind people were not like me. At one point in our conversation, I remember telling him confidently, “Other than driving, name me something that you think I can’t do, and I’ll show you otherwise.” He said that he would think about it and that he would get back to me after practice. I asked him what he was practicing for, and he said that he was a member of the school’s gymnastics team. Being interested in sports, I asked him if he’d ever heard of a blind person doing gymnastics. He said that, come to think of it, he hadn’t. He paused and then finally said, “I dare you to join gymnastics.” That day, I attended my first gymnastics practice with my friend, Brandon.
When Brandon introduced me to the coach, I asked the coach if he thought I could join and compete as part of the team. To my great joy, he said, “I don’t see why not.” He proceeded to have one of the team members show me all of the gymnastics equipment corresponding to each event. Then, he asked me to choose an event in which I thought I could succeed. After trying out all of the events, and making more or less a fool of myself, I didn’t know if I could live up to my friend’s challenge. After the first practice I was a little discouraged. The sport turned out to be quite a bit harder than I had first believed.
But after the first month or so, I noticed that my workouts were easier and that I was making progress in my performance. My coach discussed my strengths with me and suggested that I either compete on pommel horse or still rings. He also said, after a second’s thought, that I looked like a good candidate for parallel bars as well.
Each practice began with my coach explaining the routine and describing the body positions to me. Each gymnastics routine has a number of basic requirements that have to be met. Routines are scored based on a number of criteria ranging from body position to smoothness, completion of transitions, and smooth mounts and dismounts. After my coach had finished explaining a routine to me, he would often ask me to perform it in front of the team. After I would try (and usually fail) at performing the routine, my coach would lift and maneuver my body through the proper positions, all the while telling me the name for each and how long to hold each.
Although I may not have been the best gymnast, my blindness brought a brand new perspective to the way that the team learned. It wasn’t long before the coach told my team members that they should try thinking about learning gymnastics the way I did in order to truly understand it. Instead of using the eyes, he challenged them to use their other senses. My team members soon began to teach me my routines using the coach’s methods. This helped me to learn, and it helped them gain new techniques for their performances.
After our first gymnastics meet (which we won!) we were interviewed by a local newspaper. My team captain told the reporter that he wouldn’t have done as well if it weren’t for the hours he spent teaching me my routines. He said that by teaching me the routines, he had to think of alternative ways of expressing the concepts to me, which in turn gave him a better understanding of what he had to do. By the end of my senior year everyone on my team agreed that they performed better because they had learned to think about the sport using alternative methods.
Although my friend dared me to join gymnastics, he really didn’t think I could do it. But my coach dared to believe. As silly as it may sound, “seeing beyond the impossible” really is possible. Impossibilities are no more than self-limitations. With the right techniques, sufficient encouragement, and self-motivation, I was able to compete in mainstream sports. At the end of my senior year, I was no longer a novelty to the gymnastics community. When I started scoring higher than some of the “good” gymnasts, I was shown the respect that I deserved as a person competing on an equal playing field.
Enrolling blind children in sports, or challenging them to be physically active, is beneficial in so many ways. Children who are active are overall healthier and are able to focus better in school. And blind children who are active have better spatial and kinesthetic awareness; that is, an understanding of their physical position within different environments. This is invaluable later in life when it comes to independent travel. Good spatial awareness also enhances comprehension of mathematical concepts, such as height, distance, and geometry. All this is to say that physical activity (or sports) plays a very crucial role in the development of all children, blind or sighted.
Editor’s Note: Mike Uhle and his wife, Keisha, became acquainted with the NFB shortly after their son, Ryan, lost his vision as a toddler. Despite their grief, they didn’t waste any time reaching out to get information. I met them at a retreat for parents sponsored by the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina. A few years after the retreat, they sent me an article about Ryan playing T-Ball, and we reprinted it in Future Reflections, Volume 22, Number 2, under the title, “T-Ball Rules! Father Shares Passion for Baseball with his Blind Son.” That was five years ago. I wondered if that experience had meant much to Ryan and his family over time. So, we contacted Mike and asked him if he wanted to give us an update, and he did. So, here is our “Then and Now” story--the original T-Ball article followed by Mike’s reflection on that experience and the impact it had on the father-son bond:
Through his father’s eyes
Rob Novit, staff writer
Reprinted from the May 5, 2002, Aiken Standard, Aiken, South Carolina
The players, all of four-, five-, and six-years-old, race onto the field at Graniteville’s Gregg Park--a spring in their step, their caps pulled low to protect against a late afternoon sun that tinges their matching red shirts with an orange glow. It’s a timeless moment in small town USA and of course it’s about baseball, a game only a few decades younger than America itself.
In short right, a small boy named Ryan Uhle pounds his glove and places himself in good position. Nearby, his dad Mike soaks it all in proudly, smiling and laughing with uncomplicated delight. Mike Uhle was a multi-sport athlete at Aiken High as a teenager, but baseball was always his thing. And years later, when his wife Keisha gave birth to their first child, Mike held Ryan in his arms and could envision a future for his son a lot like his own.
“I had definitely wanted a boy so he could play sports,” said Mike. “I love baseball and when the TV is on, I’d rather watch baseball than anything else.”
Ryan was just six months old when he was diagnosed with retinal cancer and in the course of treatment over the next year, his right eye was removed. The prognosis for the left eye was very good, but a large tumor appeared unexpectedly when Ryan was two. During chemotherapy his retina detached and could not be repaired. The little boy had beaten the cancer, much to the relief and joy of his parents. But now they had to accept a new reality.
“Even with this form of cancer, we never imagined Ryan would be blind,” said Keisha Uhle. “We just thought he would be a one-eyed kid the rest of life. We had a plan in our heads of how we hoped our child’s life would be and then our expectations totally changed.” The couple knew as much about blindness as most other people, which was virtually nothing. But they did research and sought activities that might be suitable for Ryan.
Last year they discovered STAR, a therapeutic horseback-riding program for children and young adults with disabilities. That experience gave Ryan confidence and so did the violin classes that Mike and Keisha arranged through instructor Joanne Stanford. He attends preschool kindergarten at St. John’s United Methodist Church and a preschool class at Aiken Elementary. Ryan will start a regular 5K class at Aiken Elementary in the fall.
Baseball--or at this age, T-ball--was seemingly out of the question, but Wendy Scolamiero, the Oakwood-Windsor physical education teacher, didn’t think so. A close friend of Keisha and Mike, Scolamiero knew they wanted to find as many regular childhood activities for Ryan as possible. Her own son, Clark, played T-ball at Gregg Park for a volunteer coach named Mike Conaway. Last year Scolamiero told him about Ryan and asked if the youngster could join the team this spring.
Conaway was all for it, but Mike Uhle had his doubts. “We were a little hesitant at first,” he said. “It was like ‘Oh man, is he going to be able to do this?’ We didn’t want to be an inconvenience to everybody else. But Ryan never had any hesitation and the first day of practice convinced us it was the right thing to do.”
One of the players
Of all the kids on Ryan’s team, maybe three can throw the ball with any reasonable accuracy and perhaps the same number have some expectation of catching those throws. The rest are endearingly clueless as they stand in the field admiring their uniforms and their gloves and waving occasionally to their parents and siblings and their teammates.
Ryan sees none of this. But from his right field position, he has his father’s eyes. Mike stands next to him the entire inning. An errant throw comes toward them and Mike scoops up the ball and hands it to Ryan, who flings it within hailing distance of first base. Everybody cheers. “Way to go, Ryan.”
But Mike offers much more than a helping hand. He serves as Ryan’s personal color commentator, describing the game to his son as if Ryan were listening to him on the radio. In this T-ball league, one of the coaches pitches three times to each player; if the child doesn’t hit the ball, the tee is then used.
“The coach is telling the batter what to do,” Mike tells Ryan. “He pitched it and the batter missed it, and he’ll hit off the tee this time. Show me you’re getting ready. Hey, that’s a good job, buddy.” The batter sends a slow roller between short and third and reaches first safely. Ryan leans toward his dad and says slyly, “I caught a ball.” Mike just grins. “Oh get out of here.”
The game continues and Mike yells out encouragement to the other players. The next hitter swings and misses, fouls off a pitch and then whiffs on the next one. “But he looked like he was going to hit it this way,” says Mike. “What are you going to do if you get it?”
“Throw it to Clark,” Ryan responds immediately, “But what if he doesn’t yell for me?”
“Throw it anyway, because you might not be able to hear him with all the cheering.”
Another father, Morgan Stringfield, said he too wondered at first how Ryan would handle the situation. “But when I saw how Mike interacted with him and taught him how to do different things,” said Strickland, “I was surprised at how well Ryan was doing. It’s a neat thing for my son Logan too. He understands that Ryan can’t see and why Mike is out there to help him play the game. Logan realizes that just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean he can’t do things like everyone else.”
Ryan remains eligible to play again next season and has been invited to stick around an extra year if he wants to. His baseball career will likely end as his buddies move on to coach-pitch and beyond.
Wendy Scolamiero has been looking into other programs for Ryan and has contacted Chukker Creek P. E. teacher Dr. Bonnie Bucket, an authority on special needs students and physical fitness. Track and field is a good choice, as there are blind runners who compete with the assistance of sighted companions. But for now, baseball rules. Mike Conaway said he too has been amazed at Ryan’s success. A bonus is that some of the players including his son, Alex, are relatively shy. But they realized they have to call out to Ryan so he can locate them. “That has really helped them come out of their shells,” said Conaway. “They understand Ryan’s special needs and that’s been great.”
It’s the second and final inning and Ryan’s team comes to bat. He waits patiently for his turn, listening to the chatter of talkative teammates and the shouts and applause of family and friends. He has his own gallery--Keisha and his grandparents, two-year-old sister Natalie and new brother Jared, not yet three-months-old. Finally, it’s his turn. Mike hands a bat to Ryan, who eagerly walks to the plate. Mike sets the tee with the ball and positions Ryan, giving him an idea of the ball’s location and its height. Moments later, Mike barely has time to take a step back when Ryan swings. He connects! A hard grounder sails toward short and father and son take off in tandem, Mike running backwards and calling out to Ryan, who races toward him and reaches first safely.
“Good job, buddy!” Keisha screams happily from the stands. Natalie dashes away from her and hurls herself against the fence. “Go Ryan!” the tiny girl yells. The players behind Ryan also hit the ball and he eventually comes around to score. Not that anybody is actually keeping score, not for kids this age.
Natalie may join Ryan on the team next season, providing another set of eyes. Maybe someday she’ll sing or dance or play a musical instrument. It’s likely that Jared will participate in sports like his dad did a generation earlier. Ryan undoubtedly will serve as the supportive big brother for both kids.
But he’ll find his own niche, his parent said. And best of all, said Keisha, he’ll go to baseball contests with his dad. Thanks to the T-ball experience, Ryan will have a better grasp of the game. It’s all about the layout and rules and perhaps even more, the atmosphere--the National Anthem, the feel of a bat on the hands, the rust-colored clay blotches on the uniforms. And Ryan Uhle has been right in the middle of it. “It’s been fantastic to be out here with my son,” Mike said.
I’m not sure who got more out of Ryan’s playing T-ball for three years: him or me. I grew up playing sports and am still an avid sports fan. When Ryan lost his vision at two-and-a-half years old, I felt that my dreams of having a son that I could play and enjoy sports with were over before they ever began. I was wrong.
Ryan was good at hitting and in each of his three years of T-ball was in the top half of the team in his ability to hit the ball. Those three years helped Ryan develop self-confidence. At an early age he learned that he was just as good as any other kids. That self-confidence carried over to his schoolwork, his ability to make friends, and his being independent. Ryan also gained a much better sense for the game by wearing the uniform, getting dirty, feeling what it is like to hit the ball solid, running the bases as fast as you can, being in the dugout, and giving your teammates high fives.
While his days of playing organized baseball are over, Ryan still enjoys our family baseball games out in the yard and going with me to baseball games. We love to watch our local single A baseball team, the Augusta Greenjackets. I get a thrill in giving him play-by-plays, and teaching him more about the games. Ryan thinks it’s cool to learn more about the game, and he gets so excited by the great sounds in a baseball game: the crack of the bat, the umpire’s calls, the pop of the glove, the fans cheering, the vendor selling hot dogs, and the PA system with its funny sound effect are just a few. Ryan also has another team to cheer for, the Cardinals, his little brother Jared’s T-ball team.
Ryan likes other sports, too. He regularly watches high school, college, and pro-football with me. For his last birthday, Ryan took a buddy to a minor league hockey game and we sat right up on the glass. It’s great to have my son with me to share the excitement of the games, and it is special to be able to describe to him what is going on.
Ryan is ten years old now and is very active in other sports. He loves going golfing with me and riding in the cart. When the course isn’t crowded, I let Ryan hit balls in the fairway. We practice golf in our front yard and Ryan will be taking golf lessons this summer. Other favorite activities are swimming (he spends almost every day in the summer in his grandparents’ pool), and riding his bike and scooter. He makes his mom and dad nervous with the speed that he travels, but there is just no holding him back. He gets more than his share of cuts and bruises (and stitches…ugh). You would be hard pressed to find a tougher ten-year-old.
Even if Ryan had never played T-ball, I think he would still
be the active and self-confident person he is today; but man, am I glad we both
had that experience. I encourage all parents of blind children--especially fathers--to
get their kids out there to participate with sighted kids in sports. It benefits
everyone--the kid, the teammates, and you.
Editor’s Note: What kind of women do physically active, independent nine-year-old girls grow up to become? Josette Christella Garcia is the vice-president of the Sports and Recreation Division of the National Federation of the Blind. She is also a junior at Chicago State University and hopes to get her Masters Degree in Educational Psychology from Louisiana Tech and become a cane travel instructor.
The newspaper article below recounts some of Christella’s
early adventures as an energetic, competitive nine-year-old who had no use for
people who felt sorry for her. That was “Then.” The article is followed by a
recent interview we conducted to find out about “Now.” We wanted to know what
connection there was between the spirited, ambitious little girl she was at
age nine, and the person she is today. We begin with the article from 1988:
Nine-Year-Old Won’t Let Blindness Be Handicap
by K. C. Compton
Reprinted from The New Mexican, October 17, 1988.
Josette [Christella] Garcia learned to ride her bike the old-fashioned way--with brother and dad on either side of her yelling encouragement as she first coasted, pedaled, then took off on her own.
“I couldn’t believe it the first day she rode her bicycle,” said [Christella’s] mom, Virginia Garcia. “I was looking out the kitchen window and first I saw my son Christopher ride by, then right behind him came [Christella], I was flabbergasted.”
Eventually, Virginia thinks, she will get used to her daughter’s harum-scarum feats. Nine-year-old [Christella] has been completely blind since birth, but she has never gotten it through her head that she is what some people call handicapped.
Take the judo tournaments, for instance. She competes with sighted kids her own age and size. And she has four medals, one trophy, and one first-place ribbon to prove how those matches turned out.
“The first time I was in a tournament, the girl I was competing with felt sorry for me,” [Christella] said, with a sly grin. “After I beat her twice in a row, she said she didn’t feel sorry for me anymore.”
[Christella] said she is generally fearless, but she even scares herself sometimes in gymnastics class. She is fine on the low beam, vault, and floor routines--and again, has a load of ribbons and medals to prove it--but the uneven bars are sometimes intimidating.
Asked if this meant she would stop working on the bars, [Christella] just laughed and shook her head.
[Christella’s] only complaint in life, she said, is not that she is blind but that she has so few kids to play with. She and Christopher, eleven, are obviously great friends--in the way only brothers and sisters can be. But she does not have many other playmates.
“The sighted kids feel sorry for her,” her father, Gilbert, said. “And there’s nothing she hates worse.”
Hates, perhaps, because pity seems so foreign to her. Pity and self-pity certainly are not encouraged in her home.
“Sometimes people get mad at us because they think we aren’t sympathetic enough with her,” Gilbert said. “But we tell her, ‘No, hijita, you have to do it for yourself.’ We won’t be around forever to take care of [Christella], so she has to learn to be self-reliant.”
Sometimes, however, [Christella’s] independent spirit rambles a bit too far. For example, one day she went to the flea market with her parents and met a blind man with a Seeing Eye dog. [Christella] was fascinated and when she got home, she decided her own family’s pet would be a dandy guide dog.
The family finally found [Christella] long after dark. Her pants were torn, her face scratched and bloody. Unharmed but chastened, [Christella] vowed she would never leave home alone like that again.
“But I didn’t freak out, Mom.” She told her mother on the way home.
For a while, [Christella] attempted to go to the elementary school near her home. Although the law guarantees that she should be “mainstreamed” into the regular school system, lack of funds on the school’s part meant [Christella] was not getting the education she needed.
Now she attends the New Mexico School for the Visually Impaired in Alamogordo and only comes home to her family on holidays. The Garcia’s are distressed by this arrangement and have decided to try and sell their land--which has been in the Garcia family for generations--so they can move to Colorado Springs, Colorado. Another school for the visually impaired is located there, and the Garcias’ say [Christella] can then come home after school like a “normal kid.”
[Christella] wants to sing professionally when she grows up. She plans to start learning to play the piano this year in Alamogordo. Before she left for school this week, however, she begged Christopher to teach her one more skill.
“The skateboard,” he said, grinning with triumph. “She’s doing pretty good, too.”
Seth Lamkin, assistant to the editor, conducted the following interview by telephone on May 24, 2007:
Seth: What sports are you currently active in?
Christella: Well, I am currently active in judo which is my main sport, but recreationally I play goalball as well. I guess those would be the two main sports but if there’s a sport to be played, I’ll pretty much do it!
Seth: Why do you feel that you need the NFB?
Christella: NFB has been a part of my life since I was about three years old and I believe that it’s part of the reason why my parents are so supportive. Fortunately they became part of the Federation in New Mexico and met people like Dr. Schroeder and saw people who were blind and successful, doing anything that they wanted to do. That taught them that I could do the same. There might be adaptations, but for the most part I was raised just like one of the kids: climbing trees, causing trouble [laughs]. The NFB is like having a big family--no matter if I’m in Chicago, California, or Louisiana. I always know that I have a big family to support me and help me with whatever I want to accomplish.
Seth: What would you say is the most adventurous thing you’ve done as an adult? When you’ve gone outside of your comfort zone?
Christella: When my father passed away--he was a very, very
big part of my life--I didn’t really have a direction in my life. I had some
friends that were moving to California and they asked me if I wanted to move
to California. I’m usually pretty cautious. But three weeks later I moved. You
know I always had my belief from the Federation that I could accomplish anything
that I wanted, but I was able to prove it. I realized that I could pay my own
bills, have my own apartment, cook my own meals, get a job on my own. It was
really scary. I wanted to come back home a couple of times, but I was just having
too much fun to allow that to happen.
My next adventure that I’m really excited about is going to Brazil this summer.
Seth: Oh wow, tell us a little more about that.
Christella: I was selected to be part of the national team and represent the USABA in the 63 kilo division at the tournament in Sao Paulo, Brazil this summer. I’ve never traveled outside of the country--hopefully I will qualify to participate in the Paralympics. I’ll have to place in the top four to participate. It’s a pretty big event. They also have goalball, powerlifting, and track events as well as judo.
Seth: What are your aspirations for the future?
Christella: When I finally get my degree--being the vice-president of the Sports and Rec Division is gonna be something I’ll always be involved with in some capacity--I want to work for an organization to develop and implement sports programs for people who are visually impaired. I want to teach them that they can do sports and have fun just like their sighted peers.
Seth: Any hope to travel after Brazil?
Christella: Hopefully I’ll be traveling to Beijing to be in the Olympics! But also one of my goals in life is to travel to Australia and pet a kangaroo [laughs].
Seth: Do you have any interest in any sports that you haven’t tried that you’d like to try?
Christella: I would love to be in shape enough to be in a triathlon.
I’ve done a little bit of the biking and swimming, but to be in the shape to
even do that would be really cool and a lot of fun.
by Barbara Mathews
President, California Parents of Blind Children, a Division of the NFB/CA
Sports and outdoor recreation have always been a big part of our lives. My husband Rob and I met skiing! We weren’t about to let Kyra’s blindness get in the way of our family’s activities or her fun.
We sought out several blind athletes as mentors and role models. And we did our own creative thinking. When Kyra was very young, we took her hiking and camping. Then we progressed to more challenging sports, like skiing and rock climbing. She participated in the team sports of softball and soccer. As she got older, she made more of her own choices and gravitated to music. She plays flute and piano, and sings in a choir. And of course, she loves hanging out with friends and going to Disneyland.
She had a lot of fun participating in the Braille Institute’s Olympics, and she went to summer camp with a Braille Institute supported program. But for the most part, she has participated with sighted peers and family. Rob and I taught her to ski, and now one of us guides her when we ski. She took swimming lessons along with her sister Kiko. We got a tandem bike and started riding.
My advice to parents: Don’t wait around for that “special” program for blind kids. In most places, they don’t exist. Our experience has been that programs for special needs kids generally have not been suitable. Get out and have fun!
by Tom Balek
The whole world has gone crazy. Sports crazy, that is.
Fans pack stadiums by the tens of thousands to watch millionaires hit, catch, throw, tackle, shoot, drive, and run. The airwaves are crammed with games of all sorts and even the commercials during non-sports programs feature athlete-superstars hyping everything from beer to bouquets.
From the time they are tiny, kids are encouraged (sometimes pushed!) to become involved in sports. Most boys and girls are active in at least one sport, and for some the pursuit of athletic excellence is the most important aspect of their daily lives.
Some parents feel this emphasis on sports, especially the exaggerated competitiveness so common in kids sports today, is out of control. Others view sports as essential to physical, social, and mental well-being. But right or wrong, our children are surrounded by sports of all sorts every day. And blind kids are no different.
Parents play a major role in helping their blind children enjoy sports, both as participants and spectators. Every family has different interests, and this should come through naturally with a blind child. If your family loves basketball, your blind child will, too. If you are into car racing, no doubt your blind child will be a race fan. And there is no reason why a blind child can’t enjoy the same sports as his sighted peers--as a fan, or a participant, or both. My eleven-year-old son shares my love for sports, and it is something that will always keep us close.
The key is alternative techniques and being creative. Since a blind child can’t see the game, it’s helpful for a parent to become a good play-by-play announcer. It’s surprising how easy and fun this is. With a little practice and a little knowledge about the game, a parent can become a good announcer in no time. Listen carefully to a radio announcer (for the common team sports), paying special attention to how he “locates” the action on the field or court. If you don’t know all the players by heart, jot down the lineups for quick reference. It doesn’t hurt to have your child write or Braille them up before you go to the game. Having a “picture” of the playing field, either in large print, or Braille, or raised dot relief, helps a child follow the action better. My boy likes to Braille the football positions, offensive and defensive, for different formations. We refer to them when we discuss the plays.
Learn to keep up with the action, and keep your child involved in the game by frequently updating the score and the game situation. Show your excitement. Describe the crowd, the colors, the surroundings (don’t forget the cheerleaders). A good seat at the football or baseball stadium is worth just as much to a blind kid as to anyone else. In fact, the closer you are to the field or court, the more action you will hear.
Don’t forget the details. Describe the tall, black guy with the bald head. Read the advertising on the right field wall. Point out the kid in the first row who is working on his third hot dog and got mustard all over his shirt. All of these things are part of a sporting event, and you need to share whatever catches your eye.
Radio announcers are preferable to TV because they must provide all the details. But it’s a mistake to rely exclusively on radio for a blind child who is learning about the game because the announcer assumes a level of understanding that the child doesn’t have. The parent knows the child’s perspective and interests, and can do a much better job. Besides, there’s more to enjoy at a ball game than just the game action. The child wants to be with the parents and enjoy the sounds and smells and feel of the event. A pair of headphones clamped over the child’s ears can take him or her right out the stands. Older children who have a working knowledge of the game can enjoy listening to broadcasts, but will still prefer the contact of a parent.
Blind kids love to read about sports, too--a fact that should not be lost on teachers and parents who want their blind students to read and write more. Parents who read the sports pages in the newspaper should consider reading out loud for the benefit of their blind child. Frequently I will come across an article in my favorite sport magazine that I know will interest my son, so I key it into his computer and print a copy in Braille for him. And he has quite a collection of baseball, football, and basketball cards which he has Brailled with his slate and stylus. He writes letters to his favorite athletes and follows their exploits in the news. Kids love to talk sports, and trade cards. Blind kids should not be left out of this important social interaction.
So our blind children can enjoy sports as spectators. But what about participation? They want action, not just words! And they can have it.
Naturally some sports are more accessible to blind kids than others. Swimming is a good example. There are also many talented blind wrestlers. Some blind people are into jogging with a sighted companion. The martial arts are a challenge to the blind but are very rewarding; my son is fortunate to have an excellent, young, and very patient karate instructor, and he is making steady progress.
Adaptations are made to some sports specifically for blind participants, such as bowling with a guide rail and/or gutter bumpers, and beep basketball. But blind kids can participate in other sports which might not seem accessible at first blush. My son really enjoys a game of touch football in the yard with the neighborhood kids. He has experimented at nearly every position and does a pretty good job at center. Football is a “touching” type sport and is easier for him to relate to than baseball. He also loves to play basketball in the driveway; dribbling is no problem and guided by a beeper attached to his basket, he gets in some shots, too. Even though a blind child will never get to participate in these team sports in an organized competitive way, playing with family and friends helps him or her understand the games while getting some good healthy exercise.
Our blind children should expect, and get, the same physical education at school as their sighted peers. We parents must be sure that overly protective teachers and administrators don’t isolate our kids for fear they will get hurt. Participation is important for their physical development as well as their relationships to peers. Our kids are entitled to an education, and this includes physical education.
Yes, we admit it--we are sports crazy, my blind son and I. But don’t call the shrink. Neither of us wants to get well!
Editor’s Note: Great article, huh? Although it was written and published over fifteen years ago in the Fall 1991 issue of Future Reflections, it is as relevant today as it was then. Some things don’t go out of date, and a love of sports is one of them. As I reviewed the article, I did wonder what had happened to Tom and his son Jeff. Do they still enjoy sports together? Did this early love of sports have an impact on Jeff and what he is doing now with his life? Here’s the update from Tom himself:
Still (Sports) Crazy After All These Years
by Tom Balek
I’ll never forget the game at Kansas University when Mark Randall and his Jayhawk teammates beat Kentucky 150 to 95. Neither team could miss a shot--anything launched at either end was “nothing but net.” For two hours the noise was so earth-shaking that I had to scream play-by-play for my twelve-year-old blind son, Jeff. Randall became an NBA star with the Bulls and the Nuggets, and kept in touch with Jeff. “I never experienced anything like that before or since,” Randall said.
Jeff is an adult now, still a sports nut, and just graduated from Montana State University Billings with a degree in sports management. We still take in a wide variety of spectator sports--arena football is now at the top of the list. Jeff just bought his own fishing boat, hikes and rock climbs in the rugged Montana mountains, and is definitely the guy you want putting first on your four-man scramble team. Soon sports will be more than just a hobby, as he sets out on his career in sports administration.
An average student, Jeff’s passion for sports is what kept him plugging away at college. “If I can do projects that involve sports, I’m happy,” he said. Jeff’s favorite projects included a feasibility study of minor league basketball in Billings, and research into improving attendance at college games. His ambition is to work for a professional team in marketing and administration, and thanks to his involvement with computers and technology, there is nothing to prevent him from reaching his goals.
Our love for sports, and each other, will always keep us close.
by Eileen B. Hogan
Sponsored Technology Outreach Manager, NFB
Editor’s Note: Erica Costa is about to graduate from the Perkins School in Massachusetts and is headed to Bridgewater State College to study social work. She is planning to attend the NFB Youth Slam in Baltimore this summer.
“I don’t use Newsline too much for school work,” Erica Costa freely admits. “ I use it more for pleasure.” As an avid Red Sox fan, she catches up with her team by reading about them in the Boston Globe. Her busy schedule doesn’t allow Erica much time to watch or listen to the baseball games, so she counts on NFB-NEWSLINE® to closely follow her hometown teams the Boston Red Sox and the Patriots during football season. While Erica doesn’t play baseball or football herself, she does play goalball, is on a wrestling team, and takes part in a lot of track and field events at the Perkins School.
Erica credits her vision teacher of nine years as her source of inspiration while she was gradually losing her sight. Erica’s motto is “follow your dreams and don’t let anything stop you.” Her teacher was a strong advocate and made sure that Erica learned Braille, the necessary technology skills, and introduced her to NFB-NEWSLINE® about six years ago. Erica really likes using NFB-NEWSLINE® because she is independent, and “I don’t need to find someone to read to me, I just use the service at night when it is most convenient for me.”
The National Federation of the Blind maintains and operates the NFB-NEWSLINE® service, the largest accessible newspaper service for the blind in the United States. The service delivers over 250 newspapers to over 57,000 subscribers from across the country. NFB-NEWSLINE® keeps the blind up-to-date on the news happening in their communities and the world around them. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post and USA Today are among the many national and local newspapers offered. NFB-NEWSLINE® also offers magazines including The Economist, the New Yorker, all three AARP publications, Diabetes Self-Management, and four newspapers in Spanish. Subscribers have access twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, through a local or toll-free telephone number.
Some newer features on the system include electronic newspaper delivery to your personal e-mail address, the United Press International Service, Associated Press updates on the hour for national and international news and state by state, and of course our most recent and most popular addition--TV listings. The TV listings are highly interactive, allowing users to get to the desired information quickly. You can choose your favorites and also move through channels, dates, and times. Set up is as easy as providing your zip code, source of television, and your time zone.
For more information, visit the Web site at <www.nfbnewsline.org> or call NFB-NEWSLINE® at (866) 504-7300.
by Barbara Cheadle and Lisamaria Martinez
Summer camps are always an adventure, and an integral part of the growing up experience for children. Every year, as winter winds down and spring approaches, savvy parents start doing their summer camp research. The parents of blind kids begin with one extra choice to make when they start looking around for programs; that’s the consideration of whether to send their kid to a regular camp, or to a specialized camp for blind kids or kids with disabilities.
Regular camps have two very significant advantages: first, there are so many more kinds and types of regular camps to choose from in regard to location, theme or emphasis, cost, and structure (day programs or residential); and second, regular camps provide an almost ideal opportunity for socialization with sighted peers. The biggest hurdle to enrollment is that generally camp directors and staff will need to be educated about the capacities of blind kids, and need encouragement and guidance in how to fully include the child. Discrimination based on fear or ignorance does still occur, but is less likely to happen today than in years past. Advance planning, good educational materials (such as the articles in this issue), and gentle but persistent advocacy for your child will usually yield good results.
Specialized camps have some advantages, too. Some specialized camps are blindness skills training programs with recreational activities on the side. Others are more like regular camps with a purely recreational, sports, or thematic focus (i.e., a music camp or math camp), but have the advantage that all modifications for blind students are built into the program. Both types of programs give kids the chance to meet and make friends with blind peers. The most enlightened of these camps are also a rich source of blind role models and mentors in the form of adult and junior counselors, instructors, directors, dorm/cabin monitors, and other staff positions. Such camps also tend to encourage and model independent movement off the sports field as well as on it. Camp rules and policies reflect an emphasis on independence: canes are generally required or encouraged; kids carry their own food trays and bus their own tables; there are no special privileges or jobs granted to partially sighted kids based upon their vision; and campers are generally responsible for themselves and their possessions just like their sighted peers in regular camps. On the other hand, some specialized camps are founded on the premise that blind people need lots of help and special modifications. Although kids will meet other blind kids at such camps, and even have fun with some of the activities, parents should carefully consider whether the trade-off--an atmosphere that encourages dependency--is worth it.
There are also camps that accept children with a wide range of disabilities, or those with very specific disabilities--camps for children with juvenile diabetes, for example. These are sometimes good choices for blind kids with additional disabilities. However, astonishing as it may seem, the directors and staff of these camps may not be any more knowledgeable about blindness than members of the general public. Which means that they may not be any more receptive to including a child with vision loss than a regular camp is. It’s generally best to assume that advance planning, persuasion, and educational materials are helpful whatever camp you investigate for your child.
Here are some simple tips for parents to consider as they investigate summer camps for their blind children:
1. Do insist that your child use his or her cane to get to all activities within the camp. Be skeptical, for example, of a camp that has special guide ropes strung up on the campgrounds to assist blind campers to certain areas. Consider this and other modifications and policies, and ask yourself, “Will this camp encourage and support my child’s overall independence?”
2. Do prepare your child throughout the year to be age-appropriate in self-help skills such as bathing, washing hair, keeping track of his/her possessions, getting a soda out of a machine, etc. Be proactive. Don’t let a lack of personal care skills be a barrier to some wonderful camp opportunities.
3. Do arrange to get camp materials--pamphlets, rules, policies, schedules, and so forth--in Braille or other accessible format so your child can read it her- or himself. Be sure that she or he has reading material for free time at camp, too. A good Goosebumps book can be a big favorite with cabinmates after lights-out, or around the campfire when it’s time to share ghost stories.
4. Don’t assume that special camps for blind children are the best type of camp for your kid. Investigate. Talk to other parents of sighted and blind kids about their kids’ camp experiences and consider what is best for your child.
5. Do let your child follow his or her interests when selecting
a camp. If art is what your child enjoys, and an affordable art camp is available,
by all means, go for it. Try to put your biases or doubts about how blindness
might be a barrier aside. Camps are a great place to safely explore interests
and develop dreams.
by Ana Gschwend
Editor’s Note: Several months ago, Ana wrote and asked me how she could submit articles to Future Reflections. She’s a blind teen, and she and her mother both read Future Reflections. Impressed with her initiative, I told her that the next issue had a sports and recreation theme, and suggested she put something together and send it to me. No guarantees, of course. Her article would get the same scrutiny and analysis that I give all material. Ana sent two pieces and, at my request, a short bio about herself. The piece about her experiences in a regular horseback riding camp with sighted peers seemed to fit right in, so here it is followed at the end by the short bio from Ana. Here’s her camp story:
A few years ago on a nice, warm, Monday morning, I arrived at the Fountain of Joy farm for a weeklong horseback riding camp. I am totally blind and when I was younger I attended a therapeutic riding program in Clifton, Virginia. However, that program didn’t really have much of an influence on me. It was discontinued due to a shortage of participants only a few weeks after I started. While I was there, I had very little one-on-one time with the instructors. I started the program with a fear of horses and the fast pace of the program didn’t really lessen the fear. It just made it worse.
The Fountain of Joy farm was different. I was encouraged, praised, and given time to learn and explore throughout the week. The camp is run by a Christian family with a mentally challenged daughter, and they knew how to deal with kids with a variety of disabilities. Although I was one of the first blind people to enroll in the camp, they had the same expectations, hopes, and rules for me that they had for the other campers. The camp ran from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. It was all the way out in the town of Sprague [Canada], which is far from where I live with my mother. But both my mom and I were impressed with the camp, and we thought it was worth the commute.
Now, on to the story. On the first day, I arrived with a mixture of emotions inside me. I felt excited, scared, and happy. I was excited about seeing the horses that the family owned. I was scared because I didn’t know how patient my horse would be. And I was happy to meet other kids and new people. A few weeks earlier, my mother, aunt, and I had paid a visit to the farm when just the family was there so I could get a general idea of where everything was. I was supposed to have an aide with me throughout the week, but no one made a move to get me one so that plan was brushed aside. I’m glad. An aide might have given in when I got scared and refused to do a task, and probably wouldn’t have had very high expectations of me. I taught the family about how and when I might use a sighted guide and a few other tips on dealing with a blind person. Everyone was positive, excited, and supportive about my decision to go to their camp.
We started the week by painting little birdhouses. I had some help with this, but the person did not do it for me. I chose the colors I wanted (even though I’m blind, I have favorite colors) and I painted the house with the paintbrush myself.
Then it was time to get down to the horseback riding business. At the first riding program, I had worn gloves so I wouldn’t have to touch the horse’s rough mane or get my hands dirty. Janice, the mother of the adult children on the farm, (all of her children in some way contributed to the running of the camp), put a stop to that right away. She told me to put the gloves into my bag, that I would work with the horses with my bare hands just like everybody else. Good for Janice! If she’d said, “Oh, I understand. You’re blind and I know blind people don’t like getting their hands dirty. You can wear the gloves as much as you want,” then I would not have had the full tactile experience of dealing with a horse.
For most of the first day, I worked one-on-one with Janice. She and I started out by feeling the horse’s body. Janice was very descriptive and took advantage of the fact that I had some knowledge of the horse’s tack, and kept asking me what I thought the different pieces were used for. She also had me stroke, brush, and talk to the horse. I was really afraid of the horse, and Janice could tell that. So, little by little, she got me used to the horse I would be riding for the rest of the week.
The next day, I led the horse around the yard with the help of an adult, and then I mounted the horse. Within the next day or two I was riding without any help from an adult. And I was riding, confidently! Then we did some trotting. At first I freaked out, but after a while I grew to love trotting. By the end of the week, I was ready to trot around the paddock for the horse show held to show the participants’ families what the kids had learned throughout the week.
Horseback riding is a very good activity for anyone, blind or sighted. For blind people, it’s very tactile and for people that are a bit nervous about it, the help of a gentle horse is greatly appreciated. I encourage you to enroll your kids in horseback riding lessons. They might enjoy it, or they might hate it. But give it a try. As my horseback riding instructor, Rita, would say, “Never say never.”
I am fourteen years old and I live a fairly normal life, just like I would if I was sighted. I go to a regular school, I attend mainstream classes, I am one of the pianists in my church, I go to sleepovers with my friends, and I take swimming lessons on Saturdays at the Pan Am pool. I live in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, but I spent six years in an elementary school in the USA when we lived in Virginia. I was in a classroom with other blind and visually impaired children.
I was born with very limited vision (my eye condition is Peters
Anomaly), and my birth mother died when I was four months old. I spent a year
in a very poverty-stricken orphanage. At fifteen months of age, an operation
was done on my eyes to try and restore more sight, but an infection set in after
the operation and I lost more vision. Had I not gotten the infection I probably
would have low vision. I was adopted by Mary and William Gschwend at twenty-one
months of age. At age six, I lost my light perception. Now, I am totally blind,
but I don’t feel sorry for myself and I don’t want any pity from other people.
So, there’s a little bit about me. I hope you enjoyed my story.
by Christina Zani
It was a perfect autumn Saturday on the links. At least twenty young golfers of varying levels of vision and their parent/caddies along with volunteer coaches made their way around the nine-hole golf course at the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia. They had gathered there for a biannual event hosted by the school, the Junior Blind Golf Program Tournament sponsored by the Middle Atlantic Blind Golf Association (MABGA).
Norman Kritz, Director of Golf for the MABGA, designed the course, which includes sand traps and a putting area, all surrounded by the lovely track of Overbrook School. Norman explained some basics about the day’s events. “The back four holes are for playing Best Ball,” he said. This is a game where two-person teams play against each other, and in order to tally score they keep playing off of the best putt for their team. He also pointed out that a professional coach sponsored by the MABGA comes to the Overbrook School every few weeks to work with students and that all golf clubs and equipment are provided at no cost to the child or family.
Out on the course, everyone worked hard at playing! Surrounded by his mother and siblings, Ricky Ricketts practiced in the putting area. His mother held him from behind to guide his arms, and a sister rattled the flag in the cup for Ricky to hear. He smiled widely each time he connected with the ball and sent it smoothly across the green toward the cup.
Two boys had partnered up for the morning, sixteen-year-old James Ryan and young teen Nick Martucci. They were golfing with their fathers as caddies. Nick is partially sighted and James is legally blind. They both have long solid drives, and I found myself ducking their line of fire when one of them would yell, “Fore!” James said, “I haven’t played this well all summer!” Both Nick and James are sports fans and they enjoy riding their tandems (bikes built for two) with family members. James takes trips to the driving range and Nick has weekly golfing lessons through the New Jersey Library for the Blind.
Although many boys were having their day on the course, the girls were out, too! One young lady named Victoria was playing quietly with a coach nearly her age, Linda Fox’s twelve-year-old son. She was concentrating hard and going for long putts. Pretty in pink, she showed a strong sense of calm and determination as she made her way to the cup.
Another young athlete was Patrick Molloy, who hit the course with his father, Michael. His stance was one of raised shoulders and what seemed to be perfectly placed feet. When I remarked on his interesting looking putter, he exclaimed, “It’s my Odyssey two ball putter!” After indulging me my interruption, Patrick resumed playing and displayed amazing precision in putting, nearly finding the cup with each swing!
The day’s organizers could not have been more pleased with their
wonderful event. Jim Gantner and Gil Kayson, president of the MABGA and chairman
of the Junior Golf Program, spoke highly of the children and their organization’s
accomplishments. Gantner made it clear that it was Gil’s determination that
had gotten the Junior Golf Program off the ground, and Norman’s steadfastness
that got the course built. He let me know that there were some people who didn’t
think it could be done. Now, eleven years later, the program is thriving. The
MABGA is looking to expand the Junior Program, and they sponsor adult outings
about once a week between the months of April and November. Gantner and Kayson
were also very encouraging about adults and children with varying levels of
ability being able to golf.
As the sun got hotter and feet got tired, many eager children lined up for a driving contest and--to borrow a baseball term--some of them knocked it out of the park! A putting event closed out the sporting part of the day, with Norman Kritz rattling the flag for the putter’s ears, calling each golfer by name to take his or her chances at putting. Gentle laughter and clapping followed each putt. Sweet coaches Kathy Harrall and Paris Sterrett beamed at the children. Everyone then headed inside for pizza and well deserved awards for each child.
For more information:
Middle Atlantic Blind Golf Association (MABGA): <www.mabga.org>
Overbrook School for the Blind: <www.obs.org>
Lifestyles of the Fun and Special: <www.lifestylesofthefunandspecial.com>
Reprinted in Future Reflections, Volume 25, Number 2, this article originally appeared in Lifestyles of the Fun and Special, a newsletter and Web site dedicated to recreation, relaxation, and entertainment for children with disabilities.
by Vasantha Ayilavarapu
Editor’s Note: When we think of inclusion of blind students in sports, we usually think of adapting games that have evolved for players with perfect vision. Here is Mrs. Ayilavarapu to describe a different approach to sports and inclusion:
As a resource teacher of blind and visually impaired students in a school-based program at Federal Hill Preparatory School, a Baltimore City public K-8 school, I am constantly facing the challenge of facilitating inclusion and promoting acceptance of my blind students as equals in all areas by their sighted peers. At that sensitive age, nothing works better than sports in creating opportunities for interaction. All children love sports and relish the challenge of “fighting it out” on a sporting field. In my quest for sporting activities appropriate for my students and their sighted peers, I discovered goalball, thanks to the ever-innovative National Federation of the Blind and a local nonprofit organization, Common Senses.
As those of us who work with blind students know, goalball is played with a special ball that is about the size of a basketball with a similar texture and bells inside to provide sound clues. The lines on the playing area are tactual. Whenever one player needs to pass the ball to another, he calls to the player and the other player taps the floor to let him/her locate the position of the receiving player. When turning this into an inclusive game, both blind and sighted students wear blindfolds (sleepshades) and use sound and tactile cues to play the game. Any player who needs to leave the playing area is escorted off the court using sighted guide techniques, since the players are not allowed to take their blindfolds off on the court.
The game proved to be extremely popular with both boys and girls. I had excellent collaboration and support from our physical education teacher, Jeff Byerly, who has training in regular and adaptive physical education. We started off with a small group with an equal number of blind and sighted students. The sighted students were impressed with the quick reflexes of their visually challenged peers in following sound cues. Some of the blind students have become stars and you can hear admiring comments from other students such as, “Marvin rolls the balls so fast you can’t stop them.” “Shari blocks the balls so well you can’t get anything past her.” They are all equally competitive, and the sighted students do not make any allowances as they know that their non-sighted peers can beat them at this game any day.
Thanks to the full support of our principal, Sharon Van Dyke, the program is part of our regular school day schedule. The groups are much larger now, and all teachers cooperate to fit the games and practices into their busy schedules. There is now a prestige associated with being picked to be on a goalball team in the school, and teachers have used it for all students as a reward for excellent behavior and completion of work.
Another great advantage is that we did not need a lot of material for the game. We just needed a goalball, sleepshades or blindfolds, elbow and knee guards, and some thread and tape to create tactile lines on the court. We started the game with equipment loaned to us and gradually acquired our own.
The spirit of inclusion generated by this game carries over into other school activities and has fostered meaningful friendships among the students involved. The game has added to the self-esteem of my students. We slip in some warm up exercises to expand the benefits of the game. It is very interesting and encouraging to hear the goalball jargon created by the players and the exchange of friendly banter about each other’s performance at the game. It’s a great game and we hope to keep playing it as often as we can!!
Principal Van Dyke has been with Federal Hill Prep for about eight years, and she’s a twenty-one-year veteran principal of the public school system. Van Dyke is always looking for partnerships and programs that will enhance the learning opportunities for her students. She provides essential support for the goalball program at the administrative level. With support from the administrative and teaching teams, Vasantha Ayilavarapu put together the goalball program over three years ago, and it’s still going strong. To find out how your school can develop an inclusion goalball program as part of the school’s physical education program, contact Ms. Van Dyke by e-mail at <email@example.com>, or call her at the school at (410) 396-1207 or -1208. The address is Federal Hill Preparatory School, 1040 William Street, Baltimore Maryland 21230.
by Barbara Pierce
At 10:00 a.m., Nepal time, on May 25, 2001, Erik Weihenmayer became the only blind man ever to stand on the summit of Mt. Everest. He was part of an incredibly strong, talented, and cohesive team, almost all of whom summited Everest that day and all of whom had worked hard for years to make the fulfillment of this dream possible. The names of the team members are Eric Alexander, Luis Benitez, Brad Bull, Jeff Evans, Steve Gipe, Didrik Johnck, Chris Morris, Mike O'Donnell, Pasquale Scaturro, Erik Weihenmayer, and Dr. Sherman Bull, father of Brad, as well as videographers Michael Brown and Charlie Mace.
Four Everest records were set by the National Federation of the Blind-sponsored team of climbers on May 25: Erik Weihenmayer was the first blind man to summit Mt. Everest. Sherman Bull, a sixty-four-year-old surgeon, was the oldest person ever to reach the top. He and his son Bradford were the first father-son team to summit in the same climb. And the team of eleven Americans and eight Sherpas was the largest team ever to reach the top on the same day.
Backing Erik and his teammates were thousands of ordinary blind people who had helped make this extraordinary feat possible. Two years before the summit Erik Weihenmayer, his father and business manager Ed, and team leader Pasquale Scaturro met with Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, to discuss sponsorship of a training expedition to Ama Dablam in the spring of 2000 and the 2001 expedition to Mt. Everest. In the afterword to his book, Touch the Top of the World: A Blind Man’s Journey to Climb Farther than the Eye Can See, here’s what Weihenmayer said about that meeting:
“I had an idea for sponsorship: the National Federation of the Blind, a consumer group of blind people fifty thousand strong and with chapters in every state. Their mission was simple and revolutionary, at first angering the bureaucratic establishment of blindness professionals--blind people working on behalf of themselves, taking their destiny into their own hands. When I visited their headquarters, the president, Dr. Maurer, was immediately elated. ‘Our goal has been to associate blindness with a sense of adventure, to wipe the dust off the image of blindness. If you are successful, the sighted world won’t envision a blind person pining away in a dark room anymore, but standing on top of the world.’”
Two blind men--Erik Weihenmayer, blind adventurer and mountain climber, and Marc Maurer, leader of the largest organization of the blind in the world--had the courage to dream and to risk. Erik's determination to achieve his dreams and his refusal to let blindness stand in his way became a powerful vehicle for the Federation's message that blind people can compete and can be adventurers equal to any.
by Kim Puntillo
Reprinted from the New York Times, October 31, 2004
EVEREST ADVANCE BASE CAMP, Tibet: When Erik Weihenmayer, the first and only blind man to reach the summit of Mount Everest, decided to teach six blind Tibetan schoolchildren how to climb, he returned to the scene of his greatest accomplishment. The goal: Lhakpa Ri, a peak next to the world’s highest mountain.
“It’s the easiest 23,000-foot peak in the world,” Weihenmayer said. “Although, that’s like saying it’s the most gentle piranha in the world.”
His expedition crew of forty people and sixty yaks, strapped with duffel bags, tents, propane tanks, folding chairs, cooking equipment and other essential gear, wound its way through the Qomolangma (Chinese for Everest) Nature Preserve in southern Tibet for an arduous two-week trek to Advance Base Camp, where the north face of Mount Everest towered to the right and Lhakpa Ri rose to the left.
Trekking through the Himalayas above lower Everest Base Camp at 17,000 feet is dangerous enough for a sighted person, let alone for blind teenagers with little climbing experience, as was the case on this expedition, called Climbing Blind. Footpaths worn into loose rock on mountainsides can be as narrow as the width of two hiking boots, with thousand-foot drop-offs that can send any stumbling climber into an uncontrollable slide to icy glacial rivers.
“When stones are kicked over the side, I can hear them falling very far and I know that it’s dangerous,” said Kyila, eighteen, one of two girls on the trip. Like most Tibetans, she does not have a last name. “But I’m not scared. I follow the sound of the bell.”
Leading six visually impaired teenagers through Himalayan trails required a sighted escort trekking in front of each one. The escorts used one of three guiding methods: attaching a bell to the guide’s trekking poles while the child hiked with poles closely behind; holding a trekking pole backward with the blind companion grabbing the other end and following a pole’s length behind; or having the child hang on to a guide’s backpack. Occasionally, the blind climbers were warned of a falloff to the right or left, or a big step up or down, but they mastered a smooth pace without many verbal cues. On average, it took the teenagers only 50 percent longer to cover the same ground as a sighted person.
At 21,000 feet, Mount Everest Advance Base Camp is a desolate, sub-freezing, rock-covered encampment the size of half a football field on top of a glacier. The solid ice beneath rocks that were chopped away to level out the mess-tent floor numbed everyone’s feet at every meal. Temperatures at night reached 30 below zero with the wind chill, causing headlamp batteries and water bottles to freeze solid, as well as the instantaneous solidification of mucous from any runny nose.
The importance of keeping track of gear had to be impressed upon the group.
“Finding mittens, poles, and other equipment quickly is essential,” Weihenmayer said. “If a blind person misplaces something and it’s 30 below zero, he may never find it again.”
The six children never complained and did not appear intimidated. They were not strangers to adverse conditions. Tibetans treat the blind as outcasts because they believe they are possessed by demons or have committed evil in a prior life.
Tashi, nineteen, has a father who sold him to a Chinese couple. They beat him when he did not make enough money as a beggar, so he ran away at eleven and survived on the streets of Lhasa in Tibet. Recently, he found his way back to his village, where upon his return his father told him that he had “lost him,” not sold him. Luckily, Tashi had found a loving home at Braille Without Borders, a local vocational school for the visually impaired.
Braille Without Borders was founded in 1998 by Sabriye Tenberken, a blind German expatriate. Shocked at how Tibetans treated their visually impaired after coming there to study, she discovered that a Tibetan Braille language did not even exist. So she created one.
Running the school of forty-four students and eleven staff on a budget of $27,000 a year is one of many achievements that has led to Tenberken’s nomination this fall for Time Magazine Asia and Europe’s Heroine of the Year. Tenberken wrote to Weihenmayer after hearing of his Everest ascent, asking if he would meet her students. Weihenmayer felt compelled to do more.
“Everest was a great achievement, but I wanted to add to what I did,” Weihenmayer said. “These kids haven’t been born into all the opportunity I’ve had. I wanted to be that opportunity for these kids.”
He spent almost two years planning and finding sponsors to fund the Climbing Blind expedition.
The exhaustion of trekking to 21,000 feet forced setbacks when three of the students developed altitude sickness and cerebral edema, a life-threatening swelling of the brain caused by low oxygen levels. The symptoms were severe headaches, disorientation, and nausea. They were sent to lower altitude to recover along with five adults who were also sick.
Lhakpa Ri proved too ambitious a climb for the remaining three students, and the expedition was modified. Rope teams of guides and children explored the East Rongbuk Glacier, which bridges Lhakpa Ri and Mount Everest. Negotiating fissures and mulans, glacier holes caused by melting water, proved challenging enough and still taught the teenagers valuable lessons.
“Four people connected by one rope has a symbolic value,” Tenberken said. “It reinforces the concept of teamwork.”
The accomplishment of climbing to 21,000 feet remains significant--all
six teenagers hold a record for reaching the highest altitude of any blind children
in the world.
by Maryanne Davis Silve and Marty Greiser
“Even before Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to climb to the top of Mount Everest, was in the news, my then twelve-year-old son, Cody, was talking about climbing mountains,” remembers Cody’s father, Marty Greiser. “He was asking if there were mountains nearby, what were their names, and which ones could be climbed and when could we do it? In western Montana where we live, a mountain is always nearby and they can all be climbed, weather permitting.”
So why was Marty reluctant to take his son mountain climbing? After all, he has been to the top of many a mountain in the area over the years and thoroughly enjoys hiking and climbing in the mountains.
“I know what it takes to prepare and I am aware of the risks and hazards involved, some of which can be very serious,” Marty said. “As I considered taking Cody up a mountain, worrisome thoughts pounded my mind. What if something happened? What would his grandparents think, or his mother? What would the neighbors say? I had visions of it.”
“That careless, reckless father, what was he thinking? Doesn’t he know better than to take a blind kid mountain climbing? That’s just asking for trouble.”
But Cody had been raised with a “can do” philosophy, Marty said. “Plus, I had always preached that the broad umbrella of overprotectivism has bad consequences. I knew this was something Cody really wanted to do, not because he was blind and not to prove anything to anybody. He just wanted to climb a mountain, just like any other teenage boy might want to do.”
Marty remembers the interest and excitement that came after hearing about Weihenmayer’s adventure to the summit of Mount Everest. “When he heard Weihenmayer had made it to the top and back, he was excited,” said Greiser. “When he learned that Weihenmayer was going to talk about his climb up Mount Everest at the National Federation of the Blind Convention in Philadelphia, there was no way Cody was going to miss that. At the convention, an hour before Weihenmayer spoke, Cody was right up front with his own tape recorder.”
Cody’s goal to climb a mountain was fueled with another burst of enthusiasm after listening to Weihenmayer’s talk. Weihenmayer’s determination to achieve his dreams and his refusal to let blindness stand in his way provided a powerful message that blind people can compete and can be adventurers in everything they undertake, Marty said. “After Weihenmayer’s talk, Cody, now fourteen, turned to me and said, ‘OK, Dad, when can we climb Baldy Mountain?’” Greiser said.
Greiser knew that Baldy’s 10,568-foot elevation was no Mount Everest. But still, he considered it a real wild mountain with no gentle, groomed trail leading to the top. “We knew when anyone climbed it, they were on their own and responsible for their own safety.” The moment of decision had come. Greiser swallowed hard and answered his son, “As soon as we get home, and the weather looks good, we’ll climb Baldy.”
It was August 10, 2001. Temperature was in the mid-30’s. “We started out at daylight,” Cody said, still feeling the excitement of that day, “It was chilly and I remember when we got to the top of the mountain, it had that feeling of winter even though the temperature had warmed up quite a bit.”
Greiser described the terrain. “We had to walk sharply up through standing timber and over and around downfall to reach the upper tree line,” said Greiser. “Then it was rock and wide-open spaces. We had to negotiate boulder fields, rockslide rubble, and slope so steep in places you could reach out in front of yourself and touch it.”
“We made the top in just over three hours. As we went, Cody usually grasped my right arm, just above the elbow with his left hand. He had his cane in his right hand. On a few occasions of rock hopping, we clasped hands for safety. While on top we ate lunch, enjoyed the mountain, and took pictures. I then began to notice clouds gathering on the horizon and above other nearby peaks. It was time to start down. I knew that a bare, open mountainside was no place to be caught by lightning, hail, or rain.”
The pair made much better time going down, Greiser remembered. “Cody’s ability to walk on broken ground just kept getting better, and I focused more on our route and speed. If I had known we were going to get down so quickly, we would have spent more time on top.”
The adventure ended safely as Cody and Marty reached their truck with a tired but triumphant feeling. The sun was still shining and the temperature had climbed into the 70s. No storm ever materialized.
Recalling the trip made Greiser reflective. Their trip had been a success and they were safe. “But what if we, or Erik Weihenmayer, had not been successful or safe? What then? Would Erik’s effort be seen as folly? Would I be seen as a reckless father? Would Cody and other blind kids be seen as deserving more protection? Could we not, in fact, be perpetuating the very negative stereotypes we are trying to eliminate? To answer my own questions: perhaps, but most likely not. I have to think that allowing blindness to prevent our trying something new has far more negative connotations than the consequences of trying and failing at any particular task.”
Cody echoed Marty’s thoughts. “If we hadn’t made it, we’d just have tried again, until we did,” he smiled.
“Cody never had any doubt that he could make the climb,” Greiser said, “I was the reluctant one. I just did not believe or understand how a blind person could walk on such heaved and broken rock as exists on the top of mountains. I still don’t know how Cody managed the terrain. But I nearly let blindness stop us from having a good time. After all, we didn’t climb it to prove blind people can climb mountains. Weihenmayer did that, and did it royally. Cody and I climbed Baldy Mountain just for the fun of it.”
“My desire is to encourage other parents of blind children to think out of the box,” he said.
Cody says, “We plan to do it again. Maybe not Baldy, but Dad and I have other mountains to climb.”
Originally published in Future Reflections, Volume 21, Number 2, as a reprint from the Montana Standard, Tuesday, January 8, 2002. Today, Cody is a successful college student. He is one of the 2007 NFB Scholarship Winners.
Editor’s Note: The following resource list is a small compilation of items that the editor believes could prove useful to readers. In no way are these items endorsed by the NOPBC, nor is this list meant to be a comprehensive resource.
Going Places: Transition Guidelines for Community-Based Physical Activities for Students Who Have Visual Impairments, Blindness, or Deafblindness by Dr. Lauren Lieberman, Dr. Scott Modell, Dr. Paul Ponchillia, and Ileah Jackson. Copyright 2006, American Printing House for the Blind, Inc. Louisville, KY. Catalog Number: 7-13090-00
“Going Places is a resource guide for teens and young adults that promotes independent physical activity. It outlines a step-by-step process for choosing and participating in sports and other physical activities outside of the school arena. Includes: worksheets for choosing an activity, descriptions of activities, any modifications or accommodations that may be necessary, suggestions for developing needed skills, information on safety and self-advocacy, and athlete profiles encouraging a healthy lifestyle.” --APH.org
Sports and the Physically Challenged: An Encyclopedia of
People, Events, and Organizations by Linda Mastandrea and Donna Czubernat.
Copyright 2006 by Linda Mastandrea and Donna Czubernat. ISBN: 0-313-32453-0
This is an extensive alphabetical listing of sports, activities, athletes, organizations, equipment, and other information on sports for the disabled. It also contains a history of the disability sports movement, as well as contact information for a variety of organizations. Editorial Note: While it does provide useful information on blindness organizations, athletes, and sporting events, it is not easy to quickly sort through the many listings for other disabilities. It will prove useful for those whose children are multiply disabled.
Touch the Top of the World by Erik Weihenmayer. Copyright
2002 Erik Weihenmayer. ISBN: 0-452-28294-2
This is the autobiography of Erik Weihenmayer, the most famous blind adventurer in the world today. The book follows Erik’s life and eventually the climbs of the seven highest peaks on each continent, highlighted by his climb to the summit of the world’s tallest peak, Mt. Everest, sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind.
Blindsight is a documentary following six blind Tibetan teenagers who set out to climb the 23,000 foot Lhakpa Ri peak in the Himalayan mountain chain, led by Erik Weihenmayer. Won best documentary at the AFI Film Festival in 2006 and the Palm Springs Film Festival in 2007. The Little Film Company; Studio City, CA; (818) 762-6999.
No Finish Line: My Life as I See It by Marla Runyan. Copyright
2001 by Marla Runyan. ISBN: 0-399-14803-5
No Finish Line is the autobiography of the first legally blind athlete to compete in the Olympic Games.
Blindness Recreation Organizations:
United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA)
The United States Association of Blind Athletes, a member organization of the U.S. Olympic Committee, is a nonprofit organization that provides training for blind and visually impaired athletes for competition in nine sports: athletics, cycling, goalball, judo, powerlifting, skiing, swimming, wrestling, and five-a-side football. <www.usaba.org>
International Blind Sports Association (IBSA)
Founded in Paris, France, in 1981, the IBSA is a nonprofit public interest body which serves as the representative of sport for the blind on the International Paralympic Committee. Web site contains helpful information regarding each of the following sports as well as upcoming events, news, rules, records, and top athletes for each: alpine skiing, athletics, archery, futsal (five-a-side football), goalball, judo, nine-pin bowling, nordic skiing, powerlifting, showdown, shooting, swimming, tandem cycling, ten-pin bowling, and torball. <www.ibsa.es>
Blind Sports Organization (BSO)
A membership organization that seeks to “promote, provide, and advocate sports, recreational, and social opportunities for the blind and visually impaired [of the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States].” <www.blindsports.org>
Sports and Recreation Division of the National Federation
of the Blind
Led by President Lisamaria Martinez, this division of the NFB seeks to dispel the common misperceptions and attitudes about blindness and sports, as well as network with those that are blind that either participate in sports or wish to learn how they may do so. You can join the division’s listserver at <http://www.nfbnet.org/mailman/listinfo/sportsandrec>. Lisamaria can be reached by e-mail at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Sport Specific Blindness Organizations
American Blind Skiing Foundation <www.absf.org>
Blind Judo Foundation <www.blindjudofoundation.org>
Blind Sailing International <www.blindsailing.org>
National Beep Baseball Association <www.nbba.org/index.htm>
United States Blind Golf Association <www.blindgolf.com>