BOSTON—Blind and visually impaired public school students don't usually get the chance to participate in sports the same way their sighted peers do.
But 19 teens from Massachusetts and Connecticut recently flexed their muscles in a week-long "adaptive" sports camp at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown. They tried tennis, track, golf and got to ride bikes as fast and free as they wanted.
On a beautiful spring day with puffy white clouds overhead, a bunch of teens snapped on protective headgear and prepared to pedal. Fifteen-year-old Michael tried a side-by-side tandem bike. He said he rides a regular bicycle at home but only up and down his driveway because he's vision-impaired.
Cycling is one of the adaptive sports Michael and the other teens are trying at Camp Abilities at Perkins.
Through the week Michael's been at the camp, he's been able to rip around the track, lap after lap.
"I enjoy going fast," he admitted with a smile.
Michael can let loose because he has the help of a sighted co-pilot.
He got to run races as well.
"Today was a competition day, and I did a 50-yard run and a 70-yard race, and I won both of those," he beamed.
Those wins were firsts for Michael. He's a junior at Lunenberg High School, where he's the only visually impaired student. He isn't participating in physical education classes there this year, but he has in the past.
"In middle school, they'd either have me go with a guide, or they'd adapt it for me, or they had me do something else," Michael explained. "I've done lifting weights. I can do that."
When You're Blind, P.E. Is 'Really Boring'
Seventeen-year-old Lina is graduating from Chelmsford High School in June and related to Michael's experience.
"When I did have P.E. it was really boring because I didn't have an adaptive P.E. teacher or anything. But I wish I had had gotten a chance to experience P.E. in a fun way—like everyone else does," said Lina, who lost her sight when she was 2 years old.
"So often kids who are visually impaired are either with a teaching assistant in the corner of a gym or left to do things like keep score rather than participating in teams with their peers," said Dorinda Rife, superintendent of education programs at Perkins. "This is an opportunity for our kids to learn about what they can do with peers."
Rife said experimenting with blind and visually impaired peers reduces the risk of embarrassment.
'I Can Do This'
Visually impaired students aren't usually as fit as kids with sight, noted Megan O'Connell, the Perkins teacher and Camp Abilities coordinator who brought the national program to Perkins.
The camp was originally created in 1996 by Lauren Lieberman, a professor of sport studies at SUNY Brockport. Now there are 15 sites, including Massachusetts, New York, Arizona, Puerto Rico and Ireland.
"Our goal is to empower kids," O'Connell explained, "and give them self-advocacy tools to go back home, to go back to their public school and adaptive P.E. or P.E. teachers or P.T.s—whomever they're working on human movement with—and to be able to advocate for themselves that, 'I can do this, I can participate.'"
"And then hopefully that's going to translate at home and at school," added Susan Brophy, an adaptive P.E. teacher in the Chelsea public school system. She spent the entire week assisting at Camp Abilities.
Brophy said she takes her high school students on all kinds of athletic adventures.
"Outrigger canoeing, rain or shine, hot or cold. And I also have a couple of students who've been to Camp Abilities. One of them we trained for a 5K a few years ago," Brophy recalled proudly. "It's pretty awesome."
Outside of the camp, participation in sports by the visually impaired is actually pretty rare.
Mark Lucas, executive director of the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes, said that 60,000 kids are blind in the United States and more than two-thirds sit on the sidelines during their P.E. classes because so many coaches and schools don't know how to add adaptive sports to their curricula. That's why programs like Camp Abilities are critical for bringing about change, Lucas said.
According to a federal report, only 25 percent of visually impaired students in grades 7-12 play one or more seasons of sports per year, compared to 59 percent of students without disabilities.
Lucas said playing sports helps break down stereotypes beyond high school.
"Ability breaks down those stereotypes. In the United States, 70 percent of people who are blind and visually impaired are unemployed," Lucas explained. "A lot has to with the negative stereotypes that we have about people who are blind. We focus on their disability first and not their abilities."
An Unlikely Tennis Ball
One of the toughest sports to conquer is tennis, according to Perkins adaptive P.E. coordinator Matt LaCortiglia. At Camp Abilities, the game is played with a specially designed ball.
It's basically a foam ball cut in half and then a ping pong ball with some BBs in it was inserted in the middle and then put together and re-taped," LaCortiglia said. "It's not highly technical but it does work."
But then there are times when LaCortiglia wishes the ball worked a little better.
"Sometimes the ball doesn't bounce kind of evenly—takes a bounce off to the side and stuff," he said. "Some of the positives are that it is soft, so the kids aren't really worried about it hitting them, which is kind of a big thing because with a lot of sports where there's objects flying in the air there's some hesitancy, which is expected."
Playing Despite Setbacks
Sore muscles are expected this week, especially for the kids who aren't used to being so active.
Then there's 17-year-old Nicholas of Attleboro, who's very athletic. He said he runs at least three miles daily and loves wrestling, biking and weightlifting.
Nicholas' sight loss isn't as dramatic as some of the other campers.
"In my left eye I can only see light and shadows. In my right eye there is no peripheral so it's just straight ahead," he said, adding, "It's not that bad."
Nick, who's heading to college in the fall, shared his opinion on adaptive sports.
"I actually have a weird view on adaptive stuff for people with visual impairment. I think they're going too far," he said. "I think people are trying to do too much trying to help everyone, and people should try to do more things for themselves."
That said, the teen admits he's had fun at Camp Abilities trying new sports and making new friends.
Thirteen-year-old Kaylene uses one word to describe how she feels after four intense days of tennis and biking.
"Exhausted!" she said through a very satisfied smile.