American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Winter 2018       TRAVEL AND MOVEMENT

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Look Out! That Blind Kid Is Running Around!

by Erin Jepsen

Abi Jepsen swings a hockey stick at a ball that is tethered to the bleachers.From the Editor: Erin Jepsen is the low-vision mother of four elementary-school children. One child is blind, one has low vision, and two are fully sighted. Erin is passionate about teaching Braille and about education for all kids. She and her family live in Idaho.

As the low-vision mom of four kids, I'm aware of the importance of exercise for the health of the human body—especially the energetic little human bodies that try to jump on my couch or race the dog through the living room! Sometimes when wiggly little people can't concentrate on homework or listen to directions, a few minutes of running around or jumping on the trampoline gets rid of that excess energy and helps everyone feel better.

From my own sad experience with PE during school, I'm also aware that it can be challenging for blind children and adults to get the exercise their bodies need. For one thing, it's hard to catch a ball that you can't see. I remember basketballs clipping me along the side of the head during recess and losing at games of wall-ball. I'll never forget getting placed in the far, far left outfield when our class played baseball. How I hoped that the ball wouldn't come my way! Ever!

However, catching balls isn't the only issue blind children face in PE class. Anxious adults are also part of the problem. Teachers and other adults often worry that blind children will get hurt if they run or climb or chase. In our age of lawsuit-happy parents, schools tend to go overboard with safety measures, including keeping kids with disabilities out of PE classes and recess activities. Teachers simply aren't trained to adapt physical activities for blind kids or encouraged to do so. This certainly was the case for me when I was growing up. Although I had low vision, none of the activities were adapted for me in any way. I just stood there and waited for the tennis ball to come out of nowhere and hit my racket.

As an adult I've found methods of exercising that work a lot better for me. By talking to other blind adults and through personal experimentation and discovery, I've found that I love swimming, hiking, and archery. I'm not Ms. Sporty McSportypants, but I have learned that I can enjoy the outdoors and exercise, too. In the winter, I make friends with my elliptical machine in the basement, often listening to Talking Books with the BARD app on my phone.

Fortunately for the health of my blind daughter, research shows that disabled kids need exercise as much as anyone else. Just because a kid's eyes don't work, there is nothing different about her muscles and hormones and energy levels. All kids need exercise, including kids who use wheelchairs or walkers.

An informational website dedicated to teaching parents about blind children says: "It is just as important for blind/visually-impaired children to get exercise, learn how to play games, and have fun things to do in their leisure time as it is for sighted children. The more your child knows about sports, games, movies, etc., the easier it will be for him/her to talk to other kids, join in activities, and fit in" (http://www.blindchildren.org/sports_games/).

Last month our family took part in a research study comparing the movement, exercise, and eating habits of blind children with those of their sighted siblings. The researchers from Old Dominion University had all of us wear activity trackers to gather data on the impact blindness has on exercise and movement. I'm hopeful that findings from this and similar studies will help the blind community gain better health through increased opportunities for exercise.

My daughter is incredibly lucky because her PE teacher is totally enthusiastic about her participation in the class. Ms. Annette DeMyer surprised me by choosing to come to our initial IEP meeting to learn about Abi's needs. She has been proactive in researching ways to adapt activities, and she talks with me about things that have worked for us in the past. To say I've been blown away by her positive attitude is an understatement!

Because she has done such amazing work this year with Abi, who is in fourth grade, I asked Ms. DeMyer if I could interview her for Future Reflections. I want to share her ideas, strategies, and enthusiasm with other parents and teachers of blind students. Following is our conversation.

Erin Jepsen: How do you approach adapting a particular PE lesson for a blind student?

Annette DeMyer: I don't think about what can Abi do; instead, I think about how can I best include her. How can she be most included in the game. She always does a variation of what we are doing.
 
EJ: Can you give some specific examples of how you have adapted games the class plays?

AD: Sure.

Soccer: The ball bag. For this I put a soccer ball in an old mesh equipment bag. The soccer games we play usually involve kids kicking a ball at a target, such as a pin. The ball bag ensures that the ball will not run away from Abi, and she can be independent. The other kids play with a different ball, but they are still allowed to block Abi's ball from scoring.
 
Hockey: So far we are working on hitting the ball to partners. For this I tied a string to a dodge ball with a beeper attached. I then tied the ball to the bleachers in our gym. This way both partners could hit the ball with the hockey stick, and the ball stays in the area where the partners are playing. Once again, Abi can be independent and play just like the other partners are playing.
 
Basketball: This one is easy, because the ball makes a noise every time it hits the gym floor. I taught the technique of dribbling to Abi just like I did with her classmates. We also talked about picking up the ball when you notice the rhythm of the dribbles getting off. For shooting I attached a bell to a rope and wrapped it around the basketball net, with the bell on top. I could shake the rope and ring the bell, allowing Abi to shoot the ball at the noise coming from the hoop.
 
Jump rope: This worked best using a beaded jump rope so Abi could hear it hitting the gym floor. Once again it was about listening to the rhythm. Abi can determine when the rope hits the ground and when to jump.

Throwing games: We do not play dodgeball, but we do play games where we throw the dodge balls for different purposes in different games. This one takes a helpful team. I have a student use a noise-maker and stand near the target while other students supply Abi with the balls. Abi then throws the balls at the noise and gets verbal feedback from her teammates, who tell her whether she hit the target or not.

Tag: Free tag works well. The person who is "It" runs with a noise-maker so Abi knows where the tagger is.

Rock paper scissors evolution: This is a fun warm-up game that the kids love. There are three levels of evolution: egg, chicken, and Pterodactyl. The kids all start up as eggs; they pair up and play one game of rock paper scissors. Whoever wins turns into a chicken, and whoever loses stays an egg. You can only move up one step at a time and move down one step at a time. Abi navigates this game well. Her classmates just use their voices to pair up with her and let her know who wins.

EJ: Great ideas! What are some specific pieces of equipment you've used for Abi in class?

AD: I've found noise-makers you can hear well in the gym: bells, an empty water bottle with some screws in it, or large packs of TicTacs. The beepers we found online are often too quiet, and the beeper balls are too quiet for my setting [in a noisy gymnasium].

EJ: Thanks so much! Abi says that PE is one of her favorite classes, and I can see why!

AD: No problem!

Some other techniques I use to encourage Abi to get exercise are climbing trees, jumping on the backyard trampoline, or climbing on the equipment at the park. Our local NFB chapter used funds from a summer yard sale to buy a tandem bicycle that our chapter members can check out and use. Our family makes use of this whenever we go on family bike rides. We also taught Abi to ride a bike on her own by going to a large, empty parking lot.

Each summer we buy a pass to the local swimming pool. We have tried running on the track at the junior high school, both with a tether, and following someone holding an iPhone playing music. Our family takes advantage of the days when we can get into the local university climbing wall for food donations, and we have recently tried out the new trampoline park.

I've also been proactive working with the teachers and playground aides to allow Abi freedom to play during recess time. Her wonderful classroom teacher and I worked together to find jingle bells and noise-makers that Abi's classmates can use for tag and other games on the playground. I've spoken with the playground aides to be sure they don't hover over Abi, interrupting her play, and I have asked them not to restrict her from playing on the equipment. Abi has gotten a few forehead bonks, but not any more bruises than her sighted brother. She is learning to keep herself safe as she moves around, and her orientation and mobility skills have improved dramatically.

Our family also encourages outdoor time at our cabin and on family camping trips. Because she has been allowed freedom from a young age, Abi is confident navigating in a rural setting or in the woods. On outings she can run around the campsites, use good fire safety skills around the open campfire, and play games or ride bikes with the other kids. We found that the innards of a singing birthday card taped to the underside of a Frisbee work well as a locator, and we bought a beeping soccer ball online for family games of kickball.

Abi also uses her athletic ability in ballet class. She has been taking tap and ballet for three years now, and she shows a real aptitude for ballet in particular. Because she is blind she often needs alternative ways to get information on the position of her body. We pose a ballet Barbie doll so she can explore it with her fingers, and her teacher and I often stand behind her and move her body into position until her muscle memory takes over. Doing the skips, leaps, running, and spins in ballet is a bit harder. Teaching a little bit at a time and lots and lots of practice usually work well.

I firmly believe that blindness doesn't need to stop kids or adults from being energetic, healthy, and fit. Blind bloggers report that they run marathons, climb mountains, kayak rivers, ride bicycles, play goalball, compete in archery tournaments, participate in SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) role-playing leagues, go bowling, travel, hike, swim, ride horses, and play team sports. They figure out how to get the information they need and to stay safe while doing their sports. I encourage parents and teachers to learn more about how blind kids can move quickly and safely, and to participate with their peers and families in all kinds of sports and exercise opportunities. It's important for lifelong social participation and overall health. Plus, it's just plain fun.

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