From the Editor: The lack of physical activity in our country is often cited as a contributing factor in what is frequently called the obesity epidemic. Weight gain has long been associated with disabling and life-threatening conditions. It has often been observed that man is a growing machine, meaning that the older one gets, the harder it is to keep from gaining weight.
What worries many healthcare professionals, dietitians, teachers, and parents is the alarming rise in obesity among children. Arguably blind children, as part of society, share this problem, but the following article convincingly argues that blind youngsters are even more likely to suffer from obesity because physical education teachers don't know how to make accommodations to allow their blind students to participate. Here is what the United States Association of Blind Athletes has to say:
An estimated 52,000 school-age children are blind or visually impaired in the United States; nearly 70 percent do not participate in even a limited physical education curriculum. The barriers that blind or visually impaired youth face are numerous and primarily the consequence of moving their education from residential schools, where physical educators with a knowledge of blindness deliver specialized services in relatively small classes, to public schools, where educators may have less knowledge, time, and resources to apply to students who are visually impaired.
In 1976 the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) was founded by Dr. Charles Buell to improve the lives of people who are blind or visually impaired. Since then USABA, a Colorado-based 501(c)(3) organization, has evolved into a national organization that provides sports opportunities to thousands of athletes of all ages and abilities who are blind or visually impaired. A member of the U.S. Olympic Committee, USABA enhances the lives of people who are blind or visually impaired through sports and physical activity by providing opportunities in various sports, including, but not limited to, track and field, Nordic and alpine skiing, biathlon, judo, wrestling, swimming, tandem cycling, powerlifting, rowing, showdown, triathlon, archery, and goalball.
USABA recognizes that sports opportunities allow people who are blind or visually impaired to develop independence through competition without unnecessary restrictions. Like the sighted, people who are blind or visually impaired must have the opportunity to experience the thrill of victory and the reality of defeat.
The benefits of sports and recreation have been shown to continue from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. A recent survey of USABA members revealed that not only do participants benefit academically from their involvement in sports during elementary and high school, but 57 percent of USABA members went on to higher education to pursue a college degree--which is more than double the national average of 23 percent for their visually impaired peers. Helping to increase the involvement in physical activity and the likelihood of higher education, eighteen agencies assisting youth who are blind or visually impaired are working towards a healthier lifestyle with the start of the National Fitness Challenge created by the United States Association of Blind Athletes and funded by the WellPoint Foundation. "Each participating agency submits baseline data and monthly updates that are used to create and modify achievable fitness and weight loss goals for the teens to help them decrease their Body Mass Index," said Mark Lucas, executive director of the United States Association of Blind Athletes. USABA and the WellPoint Foundation are actively working towards a healthier lifestyle by providing talking pedometers as well as fitness and nutrition coaches for each agency. Each athlete has the opportunity to be the top boy or girl from his or her agency and participate in the final National Fitness Challenge. This is a four-day camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado, June 18 to 21, 2012, where they will participate in track and field, goalball, swimming, and strength and conditioning workouts to learn more about fitness and become more involved in their local communities.
Mark Lucas says, "Our goal for the National Fitness Challenge is that the top thirty-six teens will go back to their communities and join sports teams. We want to reward the teens for their hard work and dedication towards leading an active and healthy lifestyle. Each participant will be provided skill development that can lead to national and international competitions."
Participants from each of the eighteen agencies have a special sport they are practicing in order to become more physically fit while having fun. Some are playing goalball, while others have a running league, swim team, ski team, or tandem cycling group. "The WellPoint Foundation is committed to helping children and adults have active lives and avoid the health risks associated with sedentary lifestyles and obesity," said Mike Walsh, president and general manager of WellPoint's Specialty Business, which includes dental, vision, workers' compensation, voluntary, life and disability benefits. "We believe no one should ever be denied the right to enjoy the physical and emotional benefits of exercise, and we are proud to partner with the USABA to ensure that vision impairments do not limit the recreational opportunities afforded to teenagers across the country."
The WellPoint Foundation is the philanthropic arm of WellPoint, Inc., and through charitable contributions and programs the Foundation promotes the inherent commitment of WellPoint, Inc., to enhance the health and well being of individuals and families. These seven hundred teens are taking leaps and bounds to break down stereotypes and become more physically fit by showing how active people with disabilities can be while enjoying themselves. As the National Fitness Challenge year comes to a close, USABA and the WellPoint Foundation hope the athletes meet their goal of a 50 percent total decrease in body mass index (BMI). Not only will these teens lower their BMI, but, through participation in sports and physical activity, they will realize new levels of independence, confidence, and determination.
USABA is dedicated to providing physical activities for everyone who is blind or visually impaired, especially veterans and military service members. Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom resulted in the highest percentage of eye wounds of any major conflict since World War I, so it is particularly important that USABA provide opportunities to returning wounded warriors. USABA began Operation Mission Vision in the summer of 2008. Its goal is to bring normalcy back into the lives of veterans and active duty service members who are blind or visually impaired and to accelerate their rehabilitation through sport, recreation, and physical activity.
Lonnie Bedwell, a forty-six-year-old Navy veteran, lost his sight fifteen years ago and has been a member of USABA for many years. He says, "I want to thank all of you for these opportunities and allowing me to be a part of USABA. USABA and all of you that run it are absolutely first-class. When you give your time to help others, that's something that can never be replaced. It's phenomenal. I just wish I could repay these guys. I feel like the only way I can do that is to pay it forward. It's like I was in front of a huge brick wall--no way around it, no way through it, and they put a door in it, and then they took me through it. The events--a lot of the time I don't know how you put into words what they do for people," Bedwell said.
Participation in physical activity is often the most critical mental and physical aspect of rehabilitation for both the injured person and his or her support network. In partnership with the United States Olympic Committee's Military Sports Program, USABA fully funds veterans and their coaches so they can attend and participate in the USABA summer and winter sports festivals.
In order to help veterans especially, goalball was developed after WWII to keep veterans who had lost their sight during the war physically active. Goalball is a unique ball game played by people who are blind or visually impaired, but many sighted people also play on local teams for fun. Goalball has become a premier team game and is a part of the Summer Paralympic Games. It is played in 112 countries in all International Blind Sport Association (IBSA) regions. In partnership with the U.S. Paralympics, a division of the United States Olympic Committee, USABA manages the sport of goalball from the grassroots to the elite level. Goalball is played with bells inside the ball so the players can locate it audibly. For this reason silence at events is vital. Goalball is played on a court with tactile markings so players can determine their location on the court and the direction they are facing. All players wear eye masks to block out light and thus equalize visual impairment between the athletes. USABA's goalball season is starting soon, and teams around the nation will play in tournaments with hopes of becoming national champions. The goalball schedule can be found on the USABA's website listed at the end of this article.
USABA offers many other sporting events for youth such as the IBSA World Youth Championships that occur every two years. In addition, more than 250 athletes ages twelve to nineteen from more than twenty countries compete in sports, including judo, goalball, swimming, and track and field. Team USA is represented by young athletes currently competing on their high school or club teams. USABA also provides regional goalball tournaments, sports education camps, summer sports festivals, annual winter sports festivals, and cycling camps.
Sports and physical activity is the gift that keeps on giving from childhood through adulthood. Regular exercise can help protect us all from heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, noninsulin-dependent diabetes, obesity, back pain, and osteoporosis. It can improve our moods and help to manage stress. For the greatest overall health benefits, experts recommend that we do twenty to thirty minutes of aerobic activity three or more times a week and some type of muscle-strengthening activity and stretching at least twice a week. USABA strives to be an easy access portal for information and events for all blind or visually impaired people who seek participation in sports and physical activity. Parents, teachers, community program leaders, coaches, volunteers, and people who are blind or visually impaired can easily seek out USABA staff and coaches for their expertise. What the United States Olympic Committee is to the Olympic movement, the United States Association of Blind Athletes is to the blind and visually impaired athletic movement.