Climbing to new heights

Camp Abilities and other Outreach Short Courses help kids who are blind build their skills and confidence – and have fun doing it

Teaching assistant and teen high fiving

A camper celebrates his achievement.

May 29, 2015

It’s a cold, rainy evening in April and most students are relaxing at home, enjoying a well-earned week of vacation from their studies. But a dozen intrepid young people are standing around a gym listening to the sound of carabiners locking shut and safety checks being performed. These students are part of Camp Abilities at Perkins School for the Blind, a six-day program designed to introduce teenagers with visual impairment to the world of sports. Tonight they are learning to rock climb.

In one corner of the gym a determined camper puts a hand on the wall and glances upwards. He has low vision, so climbing is more a matter of touch and feel than it is of sight. The ascent begins as a steady and skillful conversation between rock wall and climber. Each new step requires a stretch of body and imagination in order to resist an unrelenting force that threatens failure. So far the climber has proved equal to the task.

Having climbed just over halfway, however, something halts his ascent. A faint uncertainty has become a gnawing doubt. His confidence shaken, his legs and arms begin to tremble. The instructor tells him to pull on the rope, to feel its support.

I’m watching from the side, so in a calm voice I describe the next steps of the climb and assure him that he is equal to the task. He turns toward the ground and says in a barely audible voice that he would like to come down.

At that moment, however, another voice echoes off the walls of the gym, this one from another camper. “Hey man, you’re doing great! I know you can do this,” it calls. “You already made it higher than me, now go for the top.” More voices chime in with words of encouragement and support.

Slowly the climber turns to look upward. A tentative hand leaves the safety of its hold and explores the unknown terrain above, finally finding a home. A foot follows and then another hand. Slowly but surely fear ebbs and is replaced by accomplishment as the student reaches the top.

Before long he is standing back on the ground, high-fiving his friends. It’s with a mixture of disbelief and wonderment that he looks up at his lofty accomplishment, searching for the words to describe what he’s feeling. It’s a feeling that comes from confronting our own limitations and discovering that we’re too big to be confined by them. It’s not an idea that’s easily expressed, but the student does an admirable job as he turns to me with a grin and softly utters, “This is awesome!”

This is just one moment in time at Camp Abilities Boston, but it’s a moment that captures the camp motto, “Believe you can achieve.” One of 22 Camp Abilities programs worldwide, Camp Abilities Boston uniquely focuses on students with visual impairments. It’s an overnight camp that introduces children to a variety of sports, including goalball, rowing, stand-up paddle boarding, swimming, beep baseball, track and field, rock climbing, tandem biking and more.

The purpose of the camp is to empower children to be physically active in their schools and communities, improve their overall health and wellness, encourage a safe and active lifestyle, and increase their self-confidence through sports, recreation and physical activity.

Research consistently shows that children who are visually impaired have lower levels of health-related physical fitness than their sighted same-age peers. Camp Abilities Boston offers blind sports, mainstream sports, recreation and lifetime fitness opportunities, as well as individualized instruction from staff trained to work with children and teens who are visually impaired.

The camp is just one of a number of programs offered to students who are visually impaired through Perkins Outreach Short Courses. Some of these programs provide access to sports and recreational opportunities, such as skiing, backpacking and goalball. Other programs, such as robotics, computer science academy and marine explorations, focus on science, technology and expanded academic concepts.

Still other programs target the transitional skills needed to be successful in college and the workplace. All programs help students to develop the social and independent living skills needed to confidently navigate the world as an adult. Whenever possible, these programs incorporate successful adults who are blind such as backpacker Trevor Thomas, marine biologist Amy Bower, computer science professor Stephanie Ludi and astrophysicist Wanda Diaz-Merced.

For all Outreach programs, students live in an apartment-style dormitory and practice skills in a “real world” setting. When appropriate, students assist in chores such as meal prep, laundry, dishes and other activities needed for daily life.

Perhaps most importantly, these programs help students develop bonds with each other and expand their own social networks. Oftentimes students with visual impairment who attend public schools don’t get the opportunity to meet with their peers who are also visually impaired. During Outreach programs, they’re able to develop relationships in a relatively short period of time. Students often stay in touch throughout the year and will eagerly anticipate the next time they can meet up at an Outreach event, or on their own.

These relationships and skills help to promote a feeling of self-worth and self-reliance that they carry with them beyond the walls of Perkins, and for years to come.

Pat Ryan is the supervisor of Outreach Short Courses at Perkins School for the Blind. View more information on the Outreach courses offered throughout the year »