Sports, Fitness, & Recreation
by Eric Vasiliauskas
Blind without Borders
Encouraging Blind Youth to Engage in Sports, Fitness, & Recreational Activities
Whether you are a blind child or teen, a parent, educator, or instructor of blind children, or just intrigued by how blind youth & adults pursue sports & recreational activities, I hope you find the information in this article to be informative & thought-provoking.
Part of my intent is to challenge & brake pre-conceptual barriers of what blind children & youth can do – & indeed DO actually do.
Whatever your motivation, if you choose to read on, you are sure to learn something new in the process!
This webpage starts with an introduction then shifts to focus on overall “Key Concepts” & “Take-Home Messages”.
A wide & expanding variety of specific activities will be covered by following the links in this specific page’s submenu. These activity links will be expanded & updated over time… so please bookmark this page & check back periodically.
I recall early on being warned by professionals & parents of other blind children not to be overprotective.
But there is a huge gap between the advice of 1) not being overprotective & 2) actively encouraging a blind child to engage in activities like rock climbing, skiing, snowboarding & surfing.
What is the Purpose?
When it comes to sports, fitness, & recreation, it is important to ask “what is the purpose of the activity?”
The Ripple Effect is Very Real
Successfully participating in, & perhaps even mastering, sports & recreational activities has an impact that reaches far beyond the activity itself. The social benefits can not be overstated.
Undoubtedly, some of you will be surprised, if not outright shocked as you read on.
To pursue many of the activities described in website, YOU TOO will need to get more comfortable stepping outside your own comfort zones – to be sure, this can be hard for a parent or supervising adult to do.
Equally important: children must be encouraged to learn to do (safely) the same.
I can state with confidence that those parents who choose to pursue sports & recreation activities with their children will create a powerful unique bonding experience that will strengthen their relationships.
Distinct Learning Styles
There is no one “best approach” to teaching sports, fitness, & recreation concepts to blind youth. As the father of 2 blind boys, I can attest to how different children & their learning styles can be.
Use whatever technique or teaching methods work best for the individual child, but above all keep it fun!
Equal & Age-Appropriate Expectations
Don’t underestimate the abilities of your blind child or student – they are likely to surprise you & frequently even themselves . . .
If I could deliver a single message to educators & parents alike, it would be my hope to spark & inspire a paradigm of equal, age-appropriate expectations.
By buying into this philosophical mindset you will truly help change what it means to be a blind child.
I once asked my eldest son which surfing instructor he thought was the best. “Miguel,” my then 9½ year old responded without hesitation. When I asked him why, I was admittedly a little surprised by his insightful response… Vejas said it was because that particular surf instructor had paid the most attention to detail & had the highest expectations of him (for more on that check out “So Dad, When Can I Go Surfing?“).
Sharing this insight with others has helped change the perceptions & approach of subsequent instructors & has undoubtedly helped provide better & more challenging experiences for my children.
Take Home Message #1
Virtually Anything is Possible
It is important for parents, blind youth, blindness & general education professionals, administrators, coaches & instructors to underst& that almost every sports & recreational activity can be adapted or modified for accessibility.
If you, your child, or your student can think of an activity, there is a high probability that somewhere in the world there are blind individuals who have tried or who actively partake in that activity. Indeed, the possibilities are virtually endless.
In order to shatter the pre-conceptual barriers of what blind youth & adults can do, it is important to learn what others are actually doing.
Where Can I Find Info on Blind Sports & Recreation? To get a flavor for what kinds of sports & recreational activities blind individuals enjoy, I urge to go to “Google”, “Yahoo”, “Bing”, YouTube, or the search engine of your choice & type the term “blind sports” (or the specific sport or activity you are interested in). If you are sighted you can also quickly scroll through & scan the possibilities via the “image” or “video” search options.
You will find page after page of images of blind children & adults engaged in all sorts of physical activities. You are sure to be amazed & your perceptions of what is possible will quickly be challenged. Indeed, for many – including students & professionals in the blindness field – this exploratory exercise itself will be perception-changing.
Unfortunately, at this time there is no single good comprehensive resource for blind individuals, parents or educators that covers the topic of how families with a blind child should approach sports, fitness, & recreation. Several specific websites to explore include: the United States Association of Blind Athletes, the U.S. Paralympic Team, the International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA), Camp Abilities Blind Youth Sports, & the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) PE Website.
Take Home Message #2
Who’s in the Best Position to Address & Provide these Experiences to Blind Children?
Parents . . .
Look in the Mirror 😉
Behind every successful blind child that truly reaches his/her full potential are involved parents.
Enthusiastic, open-minded, intuitive regular & adaptive PE teachers & instructional assistants are certainly key to a successful integrated & complete school physical education experience.
While school-based PE is an incredibly valuable & integral part of a blind child’s curriculum, the reality is that the educational system can not be relied upon to provide the full breadth of sports & recreational experiences to blind & visually impaired children & youth. That is not just my opinion, but in fact many blind athletes & sports enthusiasts say so. Educators & blindness professionals can facilitate the process, but the vast majority of opportunities will happen outside the school setting.
It is also important for parents & teachers to understand that they don’t have to be athletic or sports fanatics to expose kids to sports & physical activities (I share this from personal experience, as I was a bonafide slide-rule carrying geek in high-school B-)
“Parent & Child Ambassadors” . . .
Remember that for many of these types of pursuits, it is highly unlikely that the individual who will be teaching or leading the new activity will have any experience with blind children. So when possible do your homework ahead of time.
For the best experience, you may very well need to get out there “sell yourself” (& your child) in a positive way. Bringing along & casually sharing a few select pictures of your child actively engaged in other activities can do wonders to facilitate creating the appropriate instruction mindset & learning/teaching environment.
Take Home Message #3
Help Your Kids Explore the Possibilities
Parents & teachers, I urge you to create an environment that fosters curiosity about sports, fitness, & recreational activities.
Kids, if you want to convince your parents & teachers to let you try new sports & other activities then you too need to get out there & learn about all your options. One of my first suggestions is to read, read, read – then when you find something sounds interesting, let your parents know you want to give it a try. I don’t know if we would have tried surfing or snowboarding if my son Vejas hadn’t learned about it first by reading & listening to stories & then taking the initiative of asking to try these.
Some great potential resources include the various accessible children’s magazines, including Sports Illustrated Kids which is available for free on audio-cassette from the U.S. Library of Congress’s National Library Service (NLS) for the Blind & Physically Handicapped.
Photo of Young Vejas Enjoying a National Geographic Kids Magazine Tape from the NLS
Take Home Message #4
Network with Parents of Other Blind Children & Seek Out Successful Blind Role Models & Blind Mentors
I have to admit that Vejas looked like he was having so much fun out there on the waves, that he inspired me to take up surfing last year.
I once asked Vejas which instructor he thought was the best. “Miguel,” he responded without much hesitation. When I asked him why, I was admittedly a little surprised by his insightful response: Vejas said it was because Miguel paid the most attention to detail and had the highest expectations of him.
I can’t begin to emphasize enough how valuable it is to try to learn from the real-life experiences & inspiring stories of blind youth, blind adults, & parents of other blind children. For parents and teachers seeking out “real-time” guidance based on the experiences of other blind individuals, the two best resources at this time are the Blindkid list-serve, the NOPBC FaceBook Group, and the NFB Sports & Recreation list-serve.
The Blindkid list-serve & the NOPBC FaceBook Group are both networks of parents of blind and visually-impaired children, as well as some blind adults, from all over the US and beyond. I had no idea where to start when my then 8 year old son asked to try snowboarding. I thus posted the question to the list-serve & within minutes to hours I received a host of responses & suggestions from parents around the country, based on experiences with their children. Armed with that information & by following those leads, I was able to arrange for a wonderful experience for my children.
The NFB Sports & Recreation list-serve is another truly amazing resource – a network of blind sports and recreation enthusiasts, composed of blind and visually-impaired youth and adults who enjoy or are seeking to figure out how to try a whole host of activities. Some list-serve members are even Paralympic athletes. By joining and posting questions or situations on these list-serves, parents and educators will within minutes to hours receive a host of responses and suggestions from either parents, based on experiences with their children, or from blind role models and blind mentors who have successfully participated in virtually any activity imaginable.
A sampling of topics that have been addressed on the Sports & Recreation list-serve include the “how to’s” of:
Attend a National Convention. I strongly encourage every family with a blind or visually-impaired child attend a National NFB Convention. It is a great setting to meet & interact with other blind children, teens & adults, to ask them about kinds of activities they enjoy, & to seek out useful tips & insights that might enhance your child’s or family’s experiences. Children, tweens, & teens can also join in & have opportunities to participate in a variety of activities sponsored & workshops by the Sports & Recreation Division, the Parent’s Division, the Student’s Division & other NFB Divisions as well. TVIs & O&M instructors – don’t be shy – I also encourage you to attend too. Every year the NOPBC sponsors an educational Conference for Parents, Teachers, & Rehabilitation Professionals. It’s a great forum to learn new perspectives & insights & to interact with families & other professionals from around the country in a variety of informal settings.
In addition to meeting blind people & to learning from their real-life experiences from the list-serves there are many inspiring sports- & recreation-oriented stories in Future Reflections Magazine, the Braille Monitor, the Kernel Book Series. In fact a number of years back the Future Reflections Special Issue: Sports, Fitness, & Blindness edition was dedicated to this subject. While these can all be found on line, one can request hard copies to read as well.
Take Home Message #5
Early Exposure is Important
It is a well-accepted fact that many patterns get set early in life. Vejas was elated after skiing down his first slope with me when he was 3½ years old. Both my boys have been formally taking swimming lesions since they were 3½-years-old.
Take Home Message #6
When Opportunity Knocks, Answer the Door
How do YOU create opportunities to try activities such as those discussed in this article? Start by looking in your local neighborhood & surrounding communities. Is there is a skating rink or rock climbing gym nearby? Hiking on trails, sledding down a snow-covered hill, boogie boarding, & geocaching are examples of inexpensive & fun activities that, depending on where you live, virtually anyone can take advantage of. Find out what are your friends & acquaintances into. You may be surprised by what new opportunities present themselves &/or at find out some interesting “secret” activities & interests those around you are in to.
“But we’re always busy…” While I can certainly empathize with this sentiment, it is critical to find ways to create the time. The is a saying “if there is a will, there is a way.” Indeed if it is important enough to you, then you can & will find a way to make the time. Vacations are a particularly ideal time to seek out new experiences!
Serendipity: Take Advantage of Fun Opportunities As They Arise. Be spontaneous… One weekend Vejas’s school held “Dodger’s Day”. We joined in the festivities at the ballpark. To give Vejas a better understanding of what was going on, I downloaded some general information on baseball & went to the Dodger’s website & downloaded information on each of the players, which I then embossed & compiled into a “personalized program” for him. We also brought along the Picture Maker Kit from APH to the game at Dodger’s Stadium & I laid out the field to make it easier to explain what was going on.
A few years later we signed up for a walk-a-thon fundraiser at the Angel Stadium Anaheim. As part of the walk-a-thon program we even got to walk/run on the field & touch some bases prior to the start of the game. This time I downloaded the program onto Vejas’s & Petras’s BrailleNotes. We again used the APH Picture Maker Tactile Diagramming Kit to illustrate what was happening on the field.
I made similar “personalized programs” before attending other sports events. At a Clippers & a Lakers games the boys have even had the chance (through school-based acquaintances) to meet some of the local players, including Brian Cook & Luke Walton, who both autographed our parent-embossed program next to the specific brailled player names.
At one hockey game, we met Bailey, the LA Kings 6-foot lion mascot and one of the referees handed Vejas a real National Hockey League Official Game Puck from official game box.
Take Home Message #7
Children Need to Achieve A Higher Level of Independence at an Earlier Age
There are also a lot of regional, state, or national programs & camps were kids can get exposed to a whole host of new experiences & try new activities. To take advantage of many of the away-from-home opportunities, WE (Parents & Educators) need to do a much better job of assuring that our children achieve AGE-APPROPRIATE independent living skills & O&M skills earlier on.
In order for blind children to have full overnight sports (or other) camp experiences, such as CampAbilities, they need to be more independent & feel comfortable with their ADLs (Activities of Daily Living) in addition to truly age-appropriate O&M skills. They need to be able to independently brush their teeth, bathe/shower, dress themselves, manage their things & get around. If they still need to rely on others, kids are likely to find the experiences much less enjoyable, perhaps even stressful, & they will likely be lead around by well-meaning sighted assistants who will hang out with them & impede their normal social interactions.
Preparation for Away Experiences. Mastery of ADLs does not happen overnight, rather they need to be refined over months & perhaps years. To optimize the likelihood of positive experience, once we decided to send my older son away to the 3-4 week summer BUDDY program at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, we discussed it with him & he helped make a list of things he needed & wanted to learn before the program. He “bought into” the process. Thus, beyond the camp experience itself, he learned many important skills over the entire year leading up to that summer. The preparation time was a great opportunity. There was a need; we made the time to address things we had previously just “been to busy” to do, one step at a time.
If fact, when then in Middle School the whole 6th grade spent a week in the San Bernardino Mountains at “Science Camp” he felt totally prepared, whereas some of his sighted classmates had been apprehensive beforehand for they had never spent that much time away from home.
Take Home Message #8
A Growing Trend to Avoid . . .
Obesity has hit epidemic proportions in the US & throughout many parts of the world. Blind kids are likewise at risk, perhaps even more-so, unless they are actively thought appropriate food & lifestyle choices.
“Food for Thought”: It’s time to promote & adopt a “Wellness Policy”. Beyond st&ard classroom academics, braille & technology skills, parents & educators need to make sure kids develop the full range of skill-sets that are need to live a healthy life-style. This means engaging it fitness activities & learning about healthy food preparation options. This should be encouraged not only at home, but learning about choosing & preparing more healthy food options should be a part to summer programs for blind kids as well. It’s too easy to directly or indirectly condone easy-to-prepare fast food options, that may come in the form of convenient prepackaged meals. Let’s give kids the tools they need to succeed! That should include not only mastering “traditional” blindness skills, but healthy life-style choices as well.
Take Home Message #9
It’s Not Just About the Activity, But It's Also About the Process
We have made some activities more fun by adding new dimensions, traveling on buses, boats, & trains to get to our destination. The people we met & concepts that came up along the way further enriched the boys’ experiences.