American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Winter 2020      FEATURE

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Blind Youth in Physical Education

by Matthew Maurer, Lisa Farley, and Cara Burchett

Matthew MaurerFrom the Editor: Dr. Matthew Maurer is a professor of education at Butler University; Lisa Farley is an associate professor of physical education, also at Butler; and Cara Burchett teaches physical education at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. In this article the authors combine their expertise to explore an area of education from which blind and low-vision students are excluded far too often.

It is widely accepted, even by children themselves, that physical activity is important for all learners. According to the Journal of Community Health (2000), "Physical activity behavior proved to be a significant predictor of self-perceived health for students." Yet American children often do not engage in adequate physical activity, and they are not considered "naturally" active (Stuart, Lieberman & Hand, 2006).

This lack of physical activity may be especially pronounced in children who are blind or have low vision. Experts have shown that children with disabilities tend to be less fit than others due to a number of factors. Among these factors are the psychosocial constraints imposed by the beliefs of others about their capabilities (Longmuir & Bar-Or, 2000; Stuart, Lieberman & Hand, 2006).

Where Do We Go Wrong?

During physical education class, a group of high school students are playing basketball. A lone blind student sits in the bleachers. The teacher explains, "We were playing basketball, and of course he can't do that, so we have him involved in the class by keeping score." Some teachers cite safety concerns when they exclude blind or low-vision students from taking part in physical activity. Others lack an understanding of the need for physical activity (Stuart, Lieberman & Hand, 2006). 

The teacher's assumption that the blind student must be excluded from an active game such as basketball is misguided in several ways. First, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) emphasizes that children with disabilities must have access to the full general education curriculum. Physical education is part of that curriculum, and therefore it must be inclusive for students with disabilities. Second, if a sport is appropriately adapted, the blind student can indeed play. Third, delays in physical activity often result in delayed motor function and locomotor skills, so it is essential that we provide those opportunities for all children (Pereira, 1990). Finally, keeping score is not the same as being involved in the physical activity of playing basketball or any other game. The game is intended to be an activity that promotes movement and teaches movement skills. Those goals are not met by keeping score.

When researchers asked parents of blind children about their children's physical activities, parents were specific about the challenges. "The top three parent-identified barriers for children with low vision were (1) untrained physical education teachers, (2) the lack of peers to be active with, and (3) the lack of opportunities" (Stuart, Lieberman & Hand, 2006).

When a parent or other advocate raises concerns about the blind child's limited participation in physical activities, the issue of adaptation often arises. "Do you expect me to change the whole game for this one child?" is a typical response from teachers. "I'm not doing that! It's not fair to all the other children." Again, this statement is off base for several reasons. First, the law says that the child must have access to the curriculum, so the teacher's refusal is in violation of federal and most likely state law. Second, the blind child is a student like all of the others. With differentiated instruction teachers should consider the needs of all their students, including blind children. Third, we often find that when we adapt an activity for one child, there are unexpected benefits for all of the students. Until we try, we don't know how much the other children will learn from an adaptation to a sport. Finally, the concept of fairness should be understood to mean that everyone gets what they need, not that everyone gets precisely the same thing.

As we have seen, blind and low-vision students generally have few opportunities to engage in purposeful physical activity. The physical activity available to them is often dependent upon the educational preparation of the teacher and the teacher's attitudes about perceived barriers to instruction (Sherrill, 2004). As we implement adaptations we must guard against inadvertently promoting learned helplessness or a lessening of personal power.

One way to adapt an activity is to have a sighted child help the blind child in some way, such as serving as a guide during a track meet. This general approach can be positive or negative, depending on how it is implemented. For example, if the sighted child and the blind child are reliant on each other for different factors of the game, they co-construct meaning from the lesson in ways that strengthen them both. However, if a sighted child and a blind child are paired in a way that puts the sighted child in charge, we have set up a hierarchy of vision in which the person with more vision is most powerful. Such an imbalance lessens the blind child's personal power and may begin to teach the child to be dependent on people with vision.

How Can We Adapt Effectively?

Teachers can adapt physical activities for their blind and low-vision students in many ways. Start by talking to the student and learning what adaptations they need. Consider auditory and tactile adaptations. For example, the floor can be marked with rope under duct tape to help the blind child maintain an orientation to the field of play. Auditory devices such as bells in balls or beepers on goals can be employed. Brighter or highly contrasted colors can help the low-vision child spot the pertinent elements of a court or field. For a more extensive list of adaptations, see Letcher (2006).

Often we are criticized for "dumbing down" the curriculum when we talk about adaptations. In the case of physical education, the "dumbing down" is thought to take the form of reduced physical activity or curtailed learning of movement-related skills. If teachers do their homework and learn what they need to know, adaptations need not have a negative impact on the curriculum. A sport need not be less active or less strenuous because it is adapted for the blind child. There may be changes to the rules, changes to the teamwork, and/or changes to the playing field. However, within those changes, the same learning objectives can be accomplished, including physical activity for all. We will provide resources at the end of this article to help the reader find positive ways to adapt.

What Does Effective Adaptation Look Like?

Let's consider an example to see how adaptation actually works. Consider basketball. In one scenario, we can station the blind child near the hoop. We can instruct the other players to hand the ball to the blind student from time to time and let him or her shoot the ball. If the blind child makes a basket under those circumstances, everyone cheers wildly and offers effusive congratulations. In this situation, the child is not advancing his or her locomotor or movement skills. In addition, this approach erodes children's independence and moves them down a path of learned helplessness. They learn that they must rely on the sighted students to hand them things, and they learn to misinterpret small accomplishments as great ones. That lesson sets the child up for powerful disappointments later in life.

In a different situation, we could adapt the game by using an audible basketball and a hoop with a bell in it. Significantly more auditory cues (player chatter, if you will) might be included in the game play. We can modify the court by creating tactile cues. With such adaptations, blind children can play independently, learning movement along with their peers. While this learning is taking place, the blind child is also developing teamwork and listening skills. The beauty is that the blind child's peers are doing the same. The learning is stronger for all the children.

Let's take another example, the standard ball-passing drill. This drill teaches hand-eye coordination to the typical child. On first thought, we may dismiss this activity as one the blind child will have to "sit out." Of course, we reject that first thought and think further. How can we involve the blind child in this activity? The blind child will not see the ball coming, and the sighted child will not throw the ball with absolute accuracy.

We may choose a larger, softer ball that can be used easily by all of the students. We can set up a routine in which the blind child knows the ball is coming, using nonvisual cues. Instead of simply having the students toss the ball to one another, we may introduce a single bounce, followed by a throw. As we adapt the activity for the blind child, consider how each adaptation also can serve other children in the class. For example, these adaptations can benefit children who are intimidated by a ball being thrown to them. When we try the activity, we may discover that the adaptations help other children as well.

Many people who think about physical education and blind children assume that there are a lot of activities a blind child cannot join. The list of limitations actually reveals limitations of imagination. If we study the possibilities and use all our resources, we can find ways to involve our blind students in nearly any physical activity. You may be thinking, "Aha! I have an exception—archery!" Not so fast! Check out the YouTube video from USA Archery (2017) from our resource list. Yes, a blind child can participate in archery, and many do!

Considering a Child's Learning History

As we consider the lifespan development of children who are blind, we must face the fact that we have failed a great number of our blind students, particularly early in their development. With this awareness, it is important that we pick up with their development wherever it may be and move forward. For example, if a blind high school student has never learned to run and jump, it will be very difficult to include this student in many of the activities that take place in a typical high school physical education class. That situation may sound farfetched, but it is more common than one might think.

A good bit of the learning for typical children is done by watching and imitating. Running and jumping fall into this category. Some educators and parents may be surprised to find that a blind child has little understanding of these basic activities. When children have not experienced running and jumping, they must be taught these skills as soon as possible. We need to help them understand what running and jumping are and encourage them to practice their execution.

The remediation of basic skills may require expertise in a specialized field called adapted physical education. Persons trained in adapted physical education have expertise and experience helping children with higher levels of difficulty in movement activities.

Inclusion and Attitude

In addition to ensuring that the child has the basic motor and movement skills necessary for inclusion in physical education, we must make certain that children have an attitude that allows them to participate. The child must be willing to join in and take a few bumps from time to time. That is the nature of physical activity. As we develop basic physical skills, we need to get our blind children into classes and after-school programs that give them the opportunity to develop a movement-oriented attitude. Some blind people have a higher-than-average tendency toward a sedentary lifestyle, but that need not be the case. Early development of an attitude that favors activity and involvement can support a positive life change.


Field, H. (2012). "Sports and Recreation for Young Blind Children." Future Reflections, Summer 2012. (This article offers suggestions and base wisdom about getting young children involved in human movement activities.)

Jepsen, E. (2018) "Look Out! That Blind Kid Is Running Around!" Future Reflections, Winter.
(Written by the mother of a blind fourth grader, this article includes an interview with a physical education teacher who finds creative ways to include her blind student in class activities.)

Letcher, K. (2006). "Adapted Physical Education for the Blind and Visually Impaired." Overbrook School for the Blind. Retrieved from on October 30, 2019.

Longmuir, P.E., and Bar-Or, O. (2000). "Factors Influencing the Physical Activity Levels of Youths with Physical and Sensory Disabilities." Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 17, 40-53.
Newman, R. L. (2007). "Being Blind and Being Fit Are Compatible Characteristics." Braille Monitor, October 2007. (This article describes a blind adult who has a lifetime fitness regimen, explaining what and why.)

Nicolay, K. (2018). "Let's Dance: How I Dealt with Choreography." Future Reflections, Summer 2018. (A young blind woman shares her story of successes and failures in learning show choir choreography. The story is typical of what many blind people go through in terms of successful and less than successful help from sighted peers.)

Pereira, L.M. (1990) "Spatial Concepts and Balance Performance: Motor Learning in Blind and Visually Impaired Children." Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 86, 174-177.

Sherrill, C. (2004). Adapted Physical Activity, Recreation and Sport: Crossdisciplinary and Lifespan, (6th ed.) Madison, WI: McGraw Hill.

Sight and Sound Technology. (2018). “10 Sports for Blind and Partially Sighted People.” (This British site highlights ten sports with a bit of information about adaptations; there is a strong British slant. The site includes eight sports that are played by both blind and sighted persons, along with goalball and a sport called polybat, an adaptation of table tennis.)

Stuart, M.E., Lieberman, L., & Hand, K.E. (April 2006). "Beliefs about Physical Activity among Children who are Visually Impaired and Their Parents." Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 100, 223-234.

USA Archery. (2017). How to: Visually Impaired Archery. YouTube.

Willings, C. (2018). "Teaching Students with Visual Impairments: Physical Education Adaptations." (This article offers some brief ideas on physical education adaptations. Some of the ideas may be a bit conservative for those who believe in pushing the limits of independence.)

Wisecarver, L. (2018). "Play Ball and Teach Sound Localization to Blind Students." Future Reflections, Summer 2018. (This is a short piece on teaching listening skills by playing ball. It focuses on listening as a component skill in orientation and mobility.)

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