Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Over the years, I have been approached by the parents of several blind children who have asked me my advice on raising a child with a visual impairment. I have always stressed one theme above all others:
Get Your Blind Child Involved in Sports
I sincerely believe that wrestling changed my life more fundamentally than any of the other incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I have undertaken. It was a result of the combined influences of my coaches, teammates and even opponents and there is no reason my experience should remain an isolated one.
There are several reasons for which I emphasize the role of sports in a blind child’s development. On the most basic level, blind children are frequently over-protected and this, unfortunately, results in a lack of exercise. Too often, parents would prefer to keep their visually impaired son or daughter safe at home rather than outside running around where they might trip and fall. A few bumps and bruises--even a broken bone--are important hallmarks of a normal childhood. Even more important than the exercise, however, is the socialization which sports provide. While there are clubs and groups, such as Go Ball, for blind children to play with one another, I stress again and again the need for blind children to interact with their sighted peers. This not only helps to integrate the child into a more realistic world, it exposes sighted children to a different way of life.
Yes, a blind player will have a slight disadvantage. Like it or not, a visual impairment is somewhat of a setback. The sooner a child is introduced into such situations, though, the sooner they will learn to adapt and find their own solutions to problems of inequality.
Wrestling was crucial in my life because it gave me both self-confidence and a strong, supportive team. The illness I suffered as a child left me very over-weight. Some of the medicines I had taken included steroids, while the months of hospitalization and bed rest left little room for physical activity. On top of this, classmates I had known in first and second grade were unsure how to deal with my blindness when I finally returned to my home district. I felt both ugly and isolated.
In my first season on the wrestling team, I lost around 20lbs. There is nothing so self-affirming for a young man than the loss of weight and toning of muscle. Furthermore, I now had a hobby, something to do in the evenings besides homework and television.
As the season progressed and teammates watched me endure the same strenuous practices as they themselves were, they began to view me less as a person with a disability and more as a fellow wrestler. This change was both subtle and highly significant, as I had found it very difficult to relate to my classmates. No one ever asked me to hang out on the weekends my freshman year of high school. It wasn’t until I joined the wrestling team that I began to go out and spend time with people from school.
No discourse on wrestling could be complete without mentioning the important role coaches play in the lives of young athletes. This was especially acute in my case. My high school wrestling coach was one of the first people to demand more from me than I believed I could give. He refused to accept excuses and taught me that I shouldn’t accept them either. Something I carry with me to this day is my coach’s admonition that people with disabilities have to help themselves because, sometimes, no one else will.
[This has been a loose translation of my coach’s rough way of speaking; his actual words went more along the lines of, “Nick, life screwed you. Go do something about it.”]
It’s difficult to understand these words out of context. My coach was speaking to a young man much more timid and self- defeatist than the adult who is now writing this blog. In a nutshell: I have every bit as much right to play on the monkey-bars as you do.