Future Reflections Special Issue: Sports, Fitness, and Blindness
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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.
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 actual performance.
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.
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