Future Reflections                                                                                       Convention, 2002

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Fit for Life

by Jennifer Butcher
Physical Education Teacher
Washington State School for the Blind

Jennifer Butcher
Jennifer Butcher

Editor’s Note: The following article is based on a speech given by Jennifer Butcher to the parents’ seminar on June 28 at the 2002 NFB convention. Jennifer Butcher is an exemplary model of the modern PE teacher. Smart, young, attractive, energetic, creative—and blind—Jennifer wasted no time getting to the point of her presentation: PE is about movement, and everyone—blind kids, too—can move! In keeping with the philosophy that “doing” is the best way to learn, Jennifer engaged the audience in a little physical exercise to dramatize her theme. After saying “Good morning,” Jennifer moved from behind the podium, sat facing the audience—feet flat on the floor in front of her, arms to her sides—and proceeded to take us through a rigorous workout, all the while remaining firmly seated in our chairs. Here’s an edited version of the workout and the subsequent presentation Jennifer delivered to her attentive audience:

Good morning. We’re going to do a small activity because you guys need to move, and because that’s my job—getting people to move. If you’re sitting really close to someone spread out just a little tiny bit. Now, put your stuff on another chair or under your chair.

What I want you to do is imagine you have a disability. I don’t care if it’s vision impairment, one arm, one leg—just think of some kind of disability that you might have as you do this exercise. Okay, so follow me. Here we go. We’re walking. [feet move in walking motion as people remain seated]. So, does someone want to tell me where they want to go? Anybody? Okay. My kids usually want to go to Disneyland. But how are we going to get there? I don’t think we’re going to walk. That’s pretty far away, so let’s fly. Put your arms out to the side, be careful—don’t hit anyone in the face. Put your feet flat on the ground. We are on a runway, so we’re going to move our feet really fast until we get in the air. Are you ready? Here we go [feet move fast as everyone pretends to be the plane moving down the runway]. We’re going to take off—feet in the air, arms out—and we’re going to fly—arms wave up and down. We’re flying. Here we go. We’re flying. It’s kind of bumpy [begin bouncing in the chair]. There’s a lot of turbulence. It’s kind of bumpy [continue to bounce, twist, arms wave up and down]. Okay, we’re getting ready to land. Ready! Feet down! And they [the feet] go fast. We land. Okay.

When we go to Disneyland we like to go on rides. So we’re going to go on a roller coaster, but it has really huge stairs that we have to climb up—high knees, high stairs [knees and legs lifted up high as if climbing up steep stairs]. Here we go. We’re on the roller coaster. It’s one of those wooden ones. So we go up and down, up and down, and around to the right, and around to your left, and move all around [bob and twist torso around while remaining seated]. It’s bumpy. It’s going, it’s going—and it stops [stop movements].

Another place kids like to go is to the park. So let’s walk to the park. Here we go. Walk your feet. Oh, my gosh, there’s a huge dog chasing us. Let’s go. Run fast [feet move rapidly in running motion]. Let’s go. Oh, you see someone you know. Wave to them. Oh, you see someone else you know; wave with the other hand. Okay, we got rid of the dog. You can walk again. At the park we like to play some volleyball. Put both hands up by your ears and let’s bump the ball up. Up and up. It’s a fast ball. It’s a faster ball. Come on! Come on! Okay [stop movements]. Now, we like to play some baseball. Hands together on a bat and bat the ball. Bat the ball on both sides—first on your right, then your left. Let’s work on our coordination—right, left. Okay, now let’s throw the ball. Throw the ball at me, throw it. Okay.

Now, we’re going to go swimming. Put your hands together, bend over, and let’s dive in the pool. Climb back up [climbing motion with hands, feet]. That was so fun, let’s dive again. Okay. Now we’re going to go swimming. Do that crawl stroke. Now, let’s do a backstroke, and a breaststroke. Okay, we’re going to kick our feet. Put your feet up in the air, and do small kicks with your feet and move your arms, too. Guess who’s chasing us? It’s Jaws! Let’s go fast. Come on, let’s go, let’s go. Okay, stop.

Now, let’s go to McDonalds. We have our food, and guess what we do? We have a food fight! So, throw the food. That’s it; throw it, throw it, throw it. Oh, the manager’s so mad at us. He’s going to make us clean it up. Put the rag in your hand and wash the walls. Wash the ceiling. Wash the floor. Okay. Now walk again, and come to a stop. [The workout is over. Jennifer returns to the head table and proceeds with her presentation.]

This is just one example of a fun physical activity you can do with children. They don’t have to be able to see anything. They don’t have to be able to walk or run anywhere, but they’re moving, aren’t they? And that is the main part of my job—to make it fun for kids to move. In fact, it’s more than a job to me; it’s my passion.

I believe that physical exercise, recreation, and sports are vital to blind and visually impaired kids. The first reason is obviously the physical reason. I don’t need to preach to you about what exercise does for your body. It helps your heart, it helps your lungs, and it gives you the energy to do what you need to do every day. Blind kids need to move and be physical active for the same health reasons that everyone else needs to move—there’s no difference.

But there are other benefits, too, and ones that I think are especially important for blind and visually impaired kids. Athletics, sports, and recreation can give you lifetime skills that are transferable to other aspects of your life; skills that can help you become successful socially and professionally.

I have been an athlete for seventeen years. I have been a competitive swimmer since the age of seven, before my vision started going bad. (My vision began going bad in grade school and I reached the legal blindness stage in late high school. Finally, in college, my visual impairment was diagnosed as Stargardt’s.) But I didn’t stop swimming, I didn’t stop competing. Regular competitions or para-Olympics, for me the competitiveness goes on. What I learned as an athlete throughout my life gives me the confidence and ability to stand here today. I’m a certified (and employed) teacher with a bachelor’s and master’s degree because of the lessons I learned as an athlete.

First, I learned the value of motivation. After I lost a significant amount of my vision, there were so many times that I wanted to quit. “Why do I have to do this? It’s not fair. Everyone else can see. I can’t even tell who’s in front of me. I can’t see the chalk board.” But athletics gave me something to live for; it gave me lots of reasons to not give up. Athletics also gave me the energy and endurance to handle the headaches, learning to do things differently, and the frustration when people didn’t understand my visual loss.

Athletics also taught me perseverance. When you do sports or compete in athletics you learn to hang in there; you learn to keep going. There are many obstacles blind kids will face in life because of blindness or attitudes about blindness. Perseverance can help them overcome those obstacles. Athletics is a good way to acquire and practice perseverance.

I learned goal-setting from athletic competition. That’s what life’s all about. That’s how you succeed. You set goals. You achieve them. You set more goals. You achieve them. I set goals for a bachelor’s degree. I achieved that. I set goals for a master’s degree. I achieved that. I learned goal setting in athletics, then transferred the skill into my daily life.

But most of all, through athletics I developed positive self-esteem. Having a visual impairment can really make you wonder how you fit into the rest of the world. This world is very oriented toward the sighted. It’s especially hard for kids to figure out how they fit in. Being an athlete and accomplishing your goals and succeeding makes you feel good about yourself. It gives you a purpose. Makes you feel worthwhile. Ten thousand people watched me compete in swimming at the para-Olympics where I won a bronze medal. Talk about a self-esteem builder. It was amazing.

So, that’s the importance of fitness, of athletics. Now, how can you help your visually impaired kids or students get moving? Let me start by describing my experiences as a PE teacher at the Washington State School for the Blind.

When I came to work at the Washington State School for the Blind I knew I had a hard, challenging job ahead of me. Most of the kids were overweight and most of them didn’t move. I heard rumors that they all hated PE—“I’m not going into that class. They’ll throw a ball at my face and it’s going to hit me and it’s going to break my nose.” Those fears were so deep that I knew that something drastic had to be done.

I began by first giving all the students some fitness tests. I used the national YMCA fitness test and the Brockport fitness test (which is designed for children with disabilities) and I came up with these results. Of the sixty-one students that I tested, fifty-four percent had a body fat percentage above a healthy limit. Seventy-six percent scored below the good standard for muscular strength. Sixty-five percent were below standard for flexibility. Forty-eight percent were below standard for abdominal strength, and ninety-one percent were below a good standard for cardiovascular endurance.

So, these statistics told me that these kids are at risk for obesity and for a variety of health-threatening diseases. These kids had too much fat mass. This didn’t mean they were all fat on the outside—it’s not what you look like on the outside, it’s what’s in the inside. It’s about fat mass around the arteries, around the muscles. You can be the skinniest person on the earth and have the highest body fat percentage. These kids needed to gain muscle mass, and lose fat mass. They needed to start moving! To do this, I needed to overcome their stereotypes about PE, and I needed to make moving FUN!

So what we did at the Washington State School for the Blind was to create the Fit for Life Program. It’s a PE class, but it isn’t. It’s more like a health club. We have treadmills, stationary bikes, a swimming pool, a gym—anything that you would find at a fitness club. When the kids come to me, I ask them, “What are you interested in?” If a kid likes to run, but doesn’t want to run with a human guide on a track, I put them on the treadmill. I show them how to use it and how to monitor their heart rate. If another kid wants to play basketball, I say, “Okay, this is a basketball. This is how it’s really played, now let’s figure out how you can play it.” They learn to run and dribble the ball, make shots. They may not be able to compete in a regulation basketball game, but they are moving, building up muscle mass, and having fun.

In the Fit for Life Program we begin with finding out what kind of physical activities each kid enjoys, because if he or she doesn’t enjoy it, he or she will not take responsibility for it, and will not do it. Once I find out what the kids like, I teach them how to access, monitor, and perform the activity. Now they love coming to PE class. They still have to dress-out, do stretching routines, do sit-ups, and things like that—but it’s okay because we do it in a fun environment. We’ve created a non-threatening “movement” environment.

I took statistics at the end of the year just to see if the program was working. We found that twenty-nine percent of all students improved their body fat percentage. This may not seem like much improvement, but when you consider that it can takes years to change body fat percentage, I think this is pretty good. Sixty-nine percent increased in muscular strength, fifty-seven percent increased in flexibility, sixty-five percent increased in abdominal strength, and forty-nine percent increased in cardiovascular endurance.

So, the statistics show it is working, and the attitudes tell me that it will keep working. No longer do we have the “I hate PE” attitudes. We don’t even call it PE anymore. It’s “Fitness Time;” it’s very social, very movement oriented, and it’s a lot of fun.

That’s what we do at the Washington School for the Blind. So, what can you do with your kids? When parents and educators ask me what sports or recreation blind kids can do, or how they can get blind students interested, I tell them to do the four e’s: expose, excite, explore, and engage.

The first “e” is expose—expose your kids to physical activity. It doesn’t matter what it is, expose them to everything—basketball, swimming, soccer, wrestling, you name it. Most of us can watch games on TV and learn about the game, but what about the kid who can’t see it? They need you to explain what’s going on, explain the rules, show them, let them try it. Your kid may not care, but that doesn’t matter—do it anyway. They have to be exposed to lots of things before they can find something that is exciting to them.

Which brings us to the second “e,” get them excited. Show excitement yourself, and nurture the interest your kids show in an activity. If your kid likes to play in the water, follow-up on it. That interest can turn into excitement and excitement can lead to swimming lessons, and maybe even competitive swimming. So first expose them, then excite them.

The third “e” is explore. Explore ways to adapt this activity so your kid can participate to the fullest extent possible. This isn’t as hard as you may think. Some activities need little or no adaptations, some need a lot. There is no one single way to adapt an activity, either. Your child may need a different adaptation than another blind or visually impaired child doing the same thing. Be creative. Problem solve. Don’t stop if the first thing you try doesn’t work. Keep trying until you find something that works. That’s how you adapt things. There’s no magical answer. There are specific rules regarding adaptations for certain competitive sports, but until your child gets to that point, there’s no need to follow rigid rules and guidelines. Your kids just need to explore and experience.

The fourth “e” is engage. Engage your kids in a variety of activities at many different levels. Get them to move, play with other kids from school or the neighborhood. Get them involved in local clubs and organizations. Join the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA). They have affiliate chapters all around the country. They can help your child develop the skills needed to become a better athlete, to become a better person. Sign your kids up for a summer sports camp. There are sports camps all around the nation—regular sports camps, sports camps for blind kids, and sports camps for disabled kids. We are very fortunate at the Washington School for the Blind in that we won a grant to have our first ever blind sports camp on campus this summer. So, engage—find ways to make recreation a part of your child’s routine life.

So, those are the four “e’s.” There is one more thing I think you need to do—help your kid find a hero. Sighted adults and kids have lots of possible sports heroes. Who’s the blind athlete’s hero? Who can be a role model for your kid? There are many athletes out there who have visual impairments who have accomplished many things—find them.

I’m really fortunate that I get to be a role model for the kids that I teach. I just say, “This is really good for you.” And, you know what? They go do it because they respect me. If I say a blind or visually impaired kid can do something, they know it’s true because I’m visually impaired, I’ve gone through the training, and I know what it takes. I didn’t win my bronze medal by chance. I worked for it. I teach them how they can work for things, too.

To summarize, remember to implement the four “e’s”— expose, excite, explore, engage—find some blind athlete role models/heroes, but whatever you do…get your blind kids moving!

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