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