SEATTLE – Every Saturday 11-year-old Rene Muñoz flies on a trapeze, bounces on trampolines and practices his handstands, all without seeing a thing.
That’s because Muñoz is blind. Despite his visual impairment, the young acrobat is able to learn many of the same tricks as his sighted classmates at Seattle’s School of Acrobatics and new Circus Arts (SANCA).
Unfortunately, not all blind children have the same opportunities to exercise or play sports. As a result, these kids are more likely to become obese, have fewer opportunities to socialize, and tend to lack confidence.
But, local experts are working to create exercise opportunities for blind children by modifying existing sports and even creating new ones.
Jennifer Butcher, a physical therapist at the Washington State School for the Blind, says many students come to her afraid of physical activities. Some have grown up being told they cannot do certain activities while others have had bad experiences such as running into something or getting hit by a ball
“Blind and visually impaired children don’t like to move,” says Jennifer Butcher, a physical therapist at the Washington State School for the Blind. “When they go to school and hear the word ‘PE’ they don’t want anything to do with it.”
Butcher says she tries to break down those psychological barriers.
“The younger you get them involved in movement the better,” Butcher says. “Then the negativity won’t build up.”
“These children are more able than we realize,” Tarczy-Hornoch says. “They are so well-adapted you would never guess the depth of their visual impairment.”
Before Muñoz started taking classes at SANCA, his mother Luz never enrolled him in sports or exercise classes. She thought they were too dangerous.
But Jo Montgomery, a nurse practitioner at Seattle Children’s who coaches at SANCA, encouraged Luz to let her son try.
Now, Montgomery says Muñoz is much stronger and his confidence is growing. Today, he can do 10 moves on the trapeze, advanced trampoline routines, cartwheels, handstands and back-walkovers. He walks on the tightrope and is working on his round-offs.
“He’s ridiculously talented,” Montgomery says. “He has come a long way.”
Muñoz is the first blind child Montgomery has ever taught, and she says it has been a learning experience for both of them. She cannot demonstrate tricks for the student, but she can train him to remember distances and feel correct positioning.
Consequences of inactivity
Butcher worries that visually-impaired children who don’t become comfortable with physical activity will grow up to be obese adults.
“It’s because of that shell they live in,” Butcher says. “Sitting and eating is more pleasurable for them than going out and moving and potentially getting hurt.”
Butcher says she has noticed blind children tend to have less muscle mass than their sighted peers. And, they can also suffer socially, feeling isolated when they can’t participate in team sports.
Billy Henry, a 21-year-old Seattle man, grew concerned with these issues growing up as a blind person. Henry cofounded the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes (NWABA) while he was still in high school to offer visually impaired youth a chance to get involved in sports.
“They should get to experience all the things their sighted peers are able to,” Henry said. “I wanted to make sure students were more accepted and treated as equals.”
Butcher says many sports can be made safe for visually impaired children. The blind can be taught to run on a track by tethering them to a volunteer who guides them, she says, and they can swim with lane guides and someone who taps their head before they hit pool walls. Wrestling is also possible for the visually impaired, Butcher says, as long as the opponents maintain contact during the match.
“You want to teach them the same skills in different ways,” Butcher says. “Take the barriers away and find a way for them to play the game."
Some games have been developed just for visually impaired athletes. Goalball was first played in the 1940s by injured World War II veterans. Participants compete in teams of three and try to throw a ball that has bells embedded in it into the opponents' goal.
There are also athletic competitions just for the visually impaired. On May 11, NWABA will host the Paralympics at SeaTac for all visually impaired athletes, grades K through 12.
Besides improving a child’s overall health and well being, Butcher says visually-impaired children who exercise tend to be much more confident.
“The self-esteem of a blind child when they do something by themselves is amazing,” Butcher says. “They just need that motivation to get started and then it improves everything in their life.”