After warming up on the treadmill in the Perkins gym, Jake, 17, knocks out two sets of lat pulldowns on the weight machine. He records his workout – 40-pound weights – on his braille notetaker.
“Next class can I try 50 pounds?” he asks Megan O’Connell-Copp, his physical education teacher. “Forty seems to be good for me but I like pushing myself.”
“We can talk about that,” O’Connell-Copp replies, as they move on to free weight exercises.
For Jake, exercise is about more than getting fit. Learning how to be physically active will help him develop hobbies and activities he can enjoy for the rest of his life. Like his sighted peers, he’ll be able to stop by the gym or go for a run with friends.
“If you’re healthy, you’re more confident and you have more options,” O’Connell-Copp says. “You have the tools you need to be independent and happy.”
Most sighted children learn how to lift weights or do sit-ups through casual observation. For children who are blind, however, those activities must be explicitly taught. Recreation and leisure is one of nine blindness-specific Expanded Core Curriculum skills taught at Perkins.
Sports in general can be intimidating for kids who are blind. Unlike their sighted peers, they can’t just walk onto a field and play football, baseball or lacrosse. Even casual athletic activities, like biking, can require adaptations or sighted guides.
But there are ways for kids with blindness to stay fit. At Perkins, O’Connell-Copp and other physical education staffers teach students how to build muscle through cardio and weightlifting. With the exception of braille labels on the treadmills, the equipment they use is identical to that of a public gym.
Perkins also offers adapted versions of mainstream sports like track, swimming and fencing. Or students can play goalball – a sport specially designed for athletes who are blind, in which players try to roll a large rubber ball with a jangling bell into their opponent’s goal.
Exposure to sports and exercise gives children an opportunity to develop hobbies and healthy habits they can carry with them into adulthood. The social benefits are also important, O’Connell-Copp says.
“If you’re at the gym, you’re not sitting alone in your apartment, you’re in a place where you can meet people,” she says. “When your coworker says ‘I went to the gym this morning,’ you can relate.”
Back in the weight room, O’Connell-Copp describes the proper position for each exercise to Jake and the other students. For lateral raises that means chest out, shoulders back, arms straight.
“The biggest thing we want to focus on is the technique and being safe,” she says. “We start little, we’re not so concerned with the weights.”
The class counts out two sets of 10, and O’Connell-Copp asks Jake how he’s feeling.
“The weight isn’t too easy or too hard,” he responds.
“We’re going to start with those five pounds and build up,” O’Connell-Copp says. “I see you increasing on your lateral raises very soon.”
The Expanded Core Curriculum is designed specifically for students with visual impairment. It covers everything from using technology to independent living to socializing with peers – knowledge most sighted children acquire by observing everyday life. The ECC gives students who are blind a toolbox of crucial skills they need to succeed at school, in social situations, at home and on the job.