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