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