Future Reflections Winter 2013
by Hai Nguyen Ly
Reprinted from Future Reflections, Special Issue on Sports, Fitness, and Recreation, Vol. 26, No. 2
From the Editor: Hai Nguyen Ly works for Kurzweil Reading Systems and chairs the Committee on Research and Development of the National Federation of the Blind. This article originally appeared under the byline of David Wright.
As far back as I can remember, I've had an interest in physical activities. Like any active kid, I enjoyed climbing trees, swinging from ropes (pretending that I was Tarzan), and jumping off the garage roof (hoping that I could fly). I read a lot of books, and as a result I had a tremendously active imagination.
Two aspects of my childhood set me apart from other children. At the age of six I was adopted from an orphanage in Vietnam. Only three weeks after I relocated to the United States, I found out that I would eventually go blind.
Despite the frustrations that came with my degenerating vision, I was a very resilient child and adapted easily. My parents did everything they could to make sure I received the best education at home and in school. For the most part, they were open-minded about encouraging me to participate in mainstream activities that had to do with academics and music. However, when it came to physical activities such as sports, I was often left on the sidelines. When I asked why, the answer always had something to do with people not wanting me to get hurt.
I suppose I was taught early, like many blind children, that I was different and that I had no future. I remember my kindergarten teacher asking me one day what I wanted to be when I grew up. Innocently, I told the class that I wanted to be a detective, an inventor, a martial artist like Bruce Lee, or maybe an astronaut. A lot of the kids laughed at me and asked how I was going to do those things when I couldn't even see clearly. Needless to say, I went home crying that day.
I went through elementary school with very few friends, but the ones I made were open-minded and dared to dream with me. At recess my friends taught me a variety of ways to get into trouble. We climbed fences, walked on top of the monkey bars, and jumped off the swings to see who could go the farthest. Those days of mischief helped me realize that I could compete physically with my sighted peers. Despite the uneducated assumptions of so many people (including my parents) about what I could not do, I had a deep-seated determination to succeed. I was determined to prove to myself that I was equal to my sighted peers.
At the age of thirteen I lost my remaining sight. During the years that followed, I went through a number of pretty big life changes. My determination was severely tested through a time of unrelenting despair over my vision loss. My parents placed me in a group home when they were unable to handle my depression. I relocated to a new and immensely larger school system, and eventually I competed on a regular high-school gymnastics team.
Although I am usually a pretty optimistic person now, my parents' decision to place me in a group home caused me to sink even deeper into depression. I spent many nights lying awake, wondering what I had done to deserve this retribution from my parents and from God.
In the end I threw off my depression by diving into my academics and getting involved in as many extracurricular activities as I could. Many of these activities played an important role in developing my independence and confidence. Although I spent much of my high school career looking for ways to avoid being at the group home, I believe now that being there forced me to raise my level of independence.
My love of sports began with my fascination with the martial arts. It seemed to me that in every mystery novel I read, the detectives were proficient in karate or some other form of fighting art. I figured that in order for me to be a good detective, I too must learn to throw my weight around. I also wanted to play traditional sports such as basketball, football, and soccer. However, I was always excluded from these activities in school and at home because of my blindness.
Throughout my school years, I fought the school system to take part in mainstream physical education classes. Most of the time I convinced my counselors to let me into the regular classes, but I was often forced to sit on the sidelines, not allowed to participate in the day's activities. Exclusion from team-building activities made me feel that I was unwanted and incapable of participation in normal sports.
When I relocated to the group home in the western suburbs of Chicago, I lost my struggle with the school system to remain in mainstream physical education. But when one door closes, another opens. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I discovered that my high school had a wrestling team. Although my parents discouraged me from joining the team, I gained their grudging approval with the help of my therapist. I wish I could have seen the look on the head coach's face when I walked into the wrestling room for the first time! Some of the other team members told me later that he looked confused and slightly annoyed, as if I were wasting his time. My coach soon learned that I was just as hardworking and capable as any other member of the team. I ended up wrestling through my sophomore and junior years, winning more matches than I lost.
In the winter of my sophomore year, I was talking to one of my new friends, Brandon, during lunch about blindness. He was curious and amazed at my level of independence; he wanted to know why all blind people were not like me. At one point in our conversation, I told him confidently, "Other than driving, name something that you think I can't do, and I'll show you otherwise."
Brandon said he would think about it and that he would get back to me after practice. I asked him what he was practicing, and he said that he was a member of the school's gymnastics team. I asked him if he'd ever heard of a blind gymnast. He said that, come to think of it, he hadn't. He paused and said, "I dare you to join gymnastics."
That day I attended my first gymnastics practice with Brandon. When Brandon introduced me, I asked the coach if he thought I could join and compete as part of the team. To my great joy, he said, "I don't see why not."
The coach had one of the team members show me the gymnastics equipment corresponding to each event. Then he asked me to choose an event in which I thought I could succeed. After trying out all of the equipment and making more or less a fool of myself, I didn't know if I could live up to my friend's challenge. The sport turned out to be quite a bit harder than I had first believed. But after the first month or so, I noticed that my workouts were easier and that I was making progress in my performance. My coach discussed my strengths with me and suggested that I compete on pommel horse or still rings. He said that I looked like a good candidate for parallel bars as well.
At the beginning of each practice my coach explained the routine and described the body positions to me. Each gymnastics routine has a number of basic requirements that have to be met. Routines are scored based on criteria ranging from body position to smoothness, completion of transitions, and smooth mounts and dismounts. After my coach had finished explaining a routine to me, he would often ask me to perform it in front of the team. After I tried (and usually failed) at the routine, my coach would lift and maneuver my body through the proper positions. All the while he was telling me the name for each position and how long I should hold it.
Although I may not have been the best gymnast, my blindness brought a brand-new perspective to the way the team learned. It wasn't long before the coach told my teammates that they should think about learning gymnastics the way I did in order to understand it fully. Instead of using their eyes, he challenged them to use their other senses. My teammates soon began to teach me routines using the coach's methods. This helped me learn, and it helped them gain new techniques for their performances.
After our first gymnastics meet (which we won!) we were interviewed by a local newspaper. My team captain told the reporter that he wouldn't have done so well if it weren't for the hours he spent teaching me my routines. He said that by teaching me he had to think of alternative ways of expressing the concepts to me, and this in turn gave him a better understanding of what he had to do. By the end of my senior year everyone on my team agreed that they performed better because they had learned to think about the sport using alternative methods.
By the end of my senior year, I was no longer a novelty to the gymnastics community. When I started scoring higher than some of the "good" gymnasts, I was shown the respect that I deserved as a person competing on an equal playing field.
Enrolling blind children in sports, or challenging them to be physically active, is beneficial in many ways. Overall, children who are active are healthier and are able to focus better in school. Blind children who are active have better spatial and kinesthetic awareness--that is, an understanding of their physical position within different environments. This awareness is invaluable when it comes to independent travel. Good spatial awareness also enhances comprehension of mathematical concepts such as height and distance. All this is to say that physical activity and sports play very crucial roles in the development of all children, blind and sighted.
Although my friend challenged me to join gymnastics, he really didn't think I could do it. But my coach dared to believe. As silly as it may sound, "seeing beyond the impossible" really is possible. Impossibilities are no more than self-limitations. With the right techniques, sufficient encouragement, and self-motivation, I was able to compete in mainstream sports.