Future Reflections Winter/Spring, Vol. 14 No. 1


by John Ross

Reprinted from the March-April, 1991 issue of the Feeling Sports newsletter.

From the Editor: "P.E. class is a joke." My sighted son's lament about his regular physical education class in high school is no comfort to me when I consider the sad state of physical education for blind kids in this country. Here's how sad it is: The staff at a summer program for middle-school blind kids have to reorganize their program when they realize that many of the kids can't walk a few city blocks without getting exhausted. These kids have no medical or physical conditions which should limit them; they're simply out of shape. A bright, talented teen-ager whose only physical limitation has been his blindness has never learned how to run. Throughout the years he has, with his parents' consent, been exempted from all strenuous P.E. activities. A blind youngster and her parents go to an amusement park. Her parents request a wheelchair for her at the park. Again, there is only the blindness, but the girl has no stamina and her parents have no patience. At home or in school her only physical activity is to walk from room to room or from the door to the bus or the car. The real irony of the situation, however, is that the amusement park was only a side trip to a Special Olympics event the youngster was attending.

` Why do these things still happen and what can we do about them? John Ross, the author of the following article, attacks these questions and offers up some strong opinions. I have never met John Ross and know nothing about him other than what you are about to read in the following article. Furthermore, I don't agree with all his opinions and conclusions. For example, I know many athletic blind people, including my son, who find no challenge in beeping baseball or in any beeping-ball sport; and laws already exist which protect the right of blind youngsters to participate in school or community-sponsored sports. It's not new laws we need, but a new understanding of blindness and more parents who are willing to follow the example of Mr. Ross's father.

Despite our divergent views on how to solve the problem, Mr. Ross and I share a common concern about the continued neglect of physical education opportunities for blind kids in our schools. What he has to say is thought-provoking and challenging.

I've been totally blind since age seven and know firsthand how the system and society deal with visually impaired people. I give high marks and ratings to a public system that provided me with an excellent education. I always had skilled teachers and up-to-date equipment to aid my learning process. They served me well enough that I went on to earn two college degrees.

Because of my teachers' skills, dedication, and efforts, I learned (and continue to extensively use) Braille. I also learned how to operate a typewriter and a computer. They taught me good study habits and the importance of competing equally in the business world. I shudder to think what my life might have been had it not been for those dedicated and wonderful people. I also shudder to think what my life might have been if I didn't have the kind of parents who wanted as much for me as my non-handicapped brothers and sisters.

I grew up in a sports-oriented environment. My father was a physical education teacher and my two brothers and two sisters where involved in different and various sports activities. I, too, wanted these same opportunities but it wasn't any easy path to follow. During gym classes, I had to stay out of the action because of þpotential dangers and injuries.þ If lucky, I could find another sidelined student and play a game of checkers. This made both my father and me furious. But, the accepted philosophy of educators and the school board was adamant: No gym activities for blind students.

However, my dad and brothers worked with me, and I learned gymnastic skills, did well in swimming, and performed even better in wrestling. Neighborhood rules were modified to allow me to participate in football, basketball, and baseball games. In high school, however, I was encouraged to substitute gym class requirements for study hours. And I was refused the opportunity to try out for any of the athletic teams. My dad fought this issue and won a minor victory. He had to sign a disclaimer absolving the school district of any liability in the event of an injury, and he had to get a special health insurance program for me. But this allowed me to letter in football, and I won the state high school wrestling tournament.

Local educators and physical education instructors ridiculed my dad for subjecting me to physical activities where I could suffer serious hurts and injuries. Thank God he was willing to take that risk. I had my share of injuries (which no one welcomes), but I also greatly benefited from the joys and lessons that are part of participating in athletics. The learned lessons, lasting friendships, memories, and pure joy of participating in organized athletic programs are rich with pluses and benefits. Because of my father, it was my good fortune to have access to these opportunities.

But, oh, I hurt to think of the many, many, blind youngsters who would love to have such opportunities but, because of circumstances, are denied. And, unless individuals and parents demand it, the doorways to unique athletic challenges and opportunities will continue to remain closed.

My college days ended over thirty years ago. Much of my professional life has been involved with promoting physical fitness and organized athletic programs for the visually impaired. Times have certainly changed. Progress over the last twenty years has been made. The options for blind people to engage in a wide variety of athletic pursuits continue to grow and multiply. But, sadly enough, this is not the case for our young blind kids.

Even schools for the blind drag their feet when it comes to making new opportunities available. They do sponsor regional, and some national, competitions in such sports as wrestling, bowling, swimming, track and field; some are getting into gymnastics and weight-lifting. But none of them have any real or progressive programs for beep-baseball, golf, or the newly-developed field of audio-darts.

The schools for the blind in Illinois and California do own audio dart machines. However, to the best of my knowledge, neither school has emphasized that activity (and it is the least likely to pose danger or injuries for participants.) Beep-baseball is the most interesting and challenging team sport available to the blind. Golf is a definite skill sport but, with proper equipment and training, many more blind adults and kids could be enjoying this activity. The younger they start, the more skilled and proficient they will become. Counselors, teachers, and school superintendents who work with the visually impaired fail to take necessary steps and actions that would make these opportunities available to their students.

Because of this yoke of hesitancy, parents are virtually unaware of what their children are missing. The bottom line is fear: fear that a child may be injured and the parents or guardians will initiate a costly lawsuit. State and federal legislators have to be pushed and made aware of this fact so that children with handicaps have the same opportunities to pursue and enjoy sport and leisure activities. The main push has to come from parents who demand that these shackles be removed. Parents have to band together to form clubs and organizations to face these issues and to pass laws that will insure that visually impaired children are no longer excluded from such an important aspect of life and learning.

A skinned elbow or bloody nose is a small price to pay for the opportunity to swing a bat and hit a pitched ball, and then, run like the devil to beat an þoutþ call. Or to throw a dart and score a bulls eye, or the sheer satisfaction of playing a game of golf with a sighted or unsighted opponent. Every school district in America should feel morally and legally obligated to make such opportunities readily available to their handicapped students.

The following article is also reprinted from the same issue of Feeling Sports newsletter:

by Dr. Jim Mastro

A good physical education or recreation program for visually impaired children can be easy if common sense is used by the educator. If teachers and recreation specialists use their creativity and treat visually impaired children the same as normal children, programs can be very beneficial.

The following are hints that may help your program succeed:
1. Preschool and elementary children should be taught that movement can be fun and beneficial (with some adaptations for safety). If you wait until these children reach twelve to fifteen years of age it may be too late for visually impaired children to learn to move with confidence.
2. A good physical education program can provide the prerequisite skills needed for further participation in sports; for example, strength and agility.
3. Choose familiar environments for physical activity or take time for orientation of the child to the surroundings.
4. Allow the child to explore the physical education area alone.
5. Remove obstacles that would interfere with free movements.
6. Use a radio or sounding device for cues in the gym and swimming pool.
7. An aerial guide line, contrasting colors, and textures can be used for boundaries and for running.
8. Use audible or brightly colored equipment (i.e. balls, balloons, scarves, and goal locators).
9. Accentuate auditory cues and verbal instructions.
10. Expand your verbal directions to children. For example, "Go over there" is inadequate. Where is there?
11. Provide verbal descriptions, manual manipulation, and Braille or large print instructions for guidance in activities as needed.
12. Maintain normal voice intensity.
13. Provide auditory starts and stops of activities.
These are a few hints that may help visually impaired children in your programs. Remember that visually impaired students are the same as sighted children in their physical education needs.