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by Barbara Cheadle and Allen Harris
- Barbara Cheadle
Sometime this past year our NFB office received a letter from a junior high physical education teacher. This teacher was getting a blind student in his class and he wanted some in- formation and guidance. He had already iden- tified some sports and activities in which he believed the student could participate and com- pete. It was obvious that he had thought a great deal about it, and truly wanted the blind student to benefit from his physical education class. He then made a comment to the effect that he did not feel that a blind student would ever use such skills as those needed for volleyball, soccer, basketball, etc.
At first, this seems pretty logical. Or is it? Below are some comments I made in response to this letter. Following that is an article by Al Harris, a blind teacher and coach. Mr. Harris, by the way, is also the president of the NFB of Michigan and a national board member of the National Federation of the Blind
My impression is that you have a good attitude and approach toward working with a blind student. I'm sure you are keeping him busy learning and that you are rinding ways for him to participate constructively in class activities.
My only suggestion is that you do find ways to involve your student in the sports of volleyball, basketball, soccer, football, etc. I agree that these are not sports in which he is likely to compete or excell, but I do believe that experience with them would be highly beneficial.
For example, many blind people are avid sports fans, and their appreciation of a particular sport is enhanced-like anyone else^-by experience with the sport. Then, too, sports are a favorite topic among teenagers, and a child that doesn't know much about a popular sport is often left out of his peer group's conversations and activities.
Although a blind student is never likely to be able to make a career out of playing any of these sports, he or she could get into careers where thorough knowledge of these sports is required. Sports writers and sports newscasters are two obvious examples. Many times blind persons are cut off from certain career opportunities because they have not had enough life experiences in a particular area. Sports is a good example.
The average blind student can expect, like anyone else, to someday get married and have children. A blind father or mother will want to be able, just like sighted parents, to help their children learn about, and enjoy sports. Catching a ball, batting a ball, making a dunk shot, dribbling a soccer ball, and making a football pass are all the kinds of things parents may teach a child. Blind parents, if they learned how to do these things when they were children, could do it too. Blind people don't have to be able to play competitively in order to show their child how to hold and throw a football, or how to dribble a basketball, or how to swing a bat.
Of course, not all parents do these things. Many are simply not interested in sports. But it is one thing to choose not to participate, and another to be never given the chance to try.
Someone who could give you practical suggestions on approaches and techniques in working with a blind student in physical education is Mr. Allen Harris. Mr. Harris is a blind teacher and coach in a regular public school in Michigan. He has successfully coached sighted children in regular swimming and wrestling classes. His teams have been good enough to win in top state competitions. His own experiences as a blind child learning sports as well as his background in coaching as an adult make him uniquely qualified to speak to issues dealing with the physical education of blind students.
In sports and other physical activities (not unlike many areas related to education of blind and visually impaired children), we simply have operated on different expectations based on attitudes and notions about blindness. If children who are blind are not encouraged and given the same opportunities in the early developmental years, it becomes so that they don't develop the same interests because they didn't have the same opportunities.
It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You have blind people who are awkward, who don't have physical strength, interest in sports, or ability in physical activities because no one believed they could do these things. Then, people see these adults and say, "Well, that's just the way blind people are. You can't expect them to be very physical."
Blind children simply need the opportunity to be encouraged and to have hands-on experiences related to sports, to recreation, and to physical education. I think that that can be provided almost routinely if we realize that we cannot take learning for granted. Sighted children pick up many skills visually that have nothing to do with vision in terms of performance. For example, throwing a ball. A sighted youngster will observe other persons throwing a ball. That will give that youngster a "leg up" in terms of what "throwing a ball" means. The physical act of throwing the ball has nothing to do with seeing it, but vision can stimulate an interest in it as well as some basic understanding of how it is done.
How does a blind child learn it? We need to work with that child to understand the motion of throwing a ball, what the object is, the position of the arm, how to hold the ball, and such like. I think that's the kind of thing that really matters and I think that it is not a complicated idea. It is something, however, that we overlook. If we stop overlooking it, I think we will see a vast difference in the physical development of blind and visually impaired youngsters.
I had some parents just recently that came to me and said, "OK, we want to do those things that will allow our youngsters to develop physically. What should we do?"
Well, I took them to a playground with just the basic playground equipment--swings, teeter totters, climbing apparatus, sand boxes, and various other things. We encouraged those kids to explore them and to look at shapes and relationships; to look at the relationship, for example, of their body to the equipment. Things that they clearly had the ability to do but which we either would have overlooked or in some cases taken for granted.
We walked the length of a football field. We talked about it being a rectangle which is 50 yards by 100 yards divided into five and ten yard gradations. We walked it, talked about it, drew it in the sand. We talked about the lining up and what you do once you get on the field.
We did the same thing with a baseball diamond. What makes a baseball diamond a baseball diamond? It is a 90 foot square which is
set from home plate at a 45 degree angle so that wherever there is a baseball diamond or you hear of a baseball diamond, its dimensions and its relation to home plate will always be the same. We talked about that, we walked the bases, we drew it in the sand.
We did that with the soccer field. We subsequently went over to a swimming pool and talked about it. We talked about what 50 meters was, what a pool would look like--again usually a rectangle, but not always with the same dimensions.
Those are the things we did. It was routine information and it didn't require any specially trained professional to teach it. But the parents were surprised. They had assumed when they came to me that they didn't have the ability to do it. They were looking for a specialized program that would show them or their kids what to do. They went away understanding that there is information which we usually expect kids to pick up visually. If we take the time to make sure that our blind kids get that information, too, then we can expect them to have a normal physical development.