Sight unseen: reaching out to the blind and visually impaired
MACON, GA. - Remember the last time you stood up too fast, and momentarily lost or experienced fuzzy vision? Taking a tentative step or two forward, hands flailing, groping for the dresser you knew was there but seemed out of reach?
Logically, you know you’ll regain your sight in a few seconds or so,. But what if injury, disease or illness hit you, rendering you permanently visually impaired, or even blind … for life.
For sighted people, the thought of losing their vision, totally or partially is racked with fear, anxiety, and vulnerability. Plus, if you’re a tennis player, the devastation you’d feel at not being able to pick up a racquet and hit the courts.
USTA Southern made major strides to make tennis available for those with limited vision this month.
According to the American Foundation for the Blind 30 million American suffer from blindness or visual impairments.
United States Blind Tennis Association leads workshop
Thanks to Dana Costa and David Dilettuso, blind and visually impaired (BVI) individuals in the U.S. can now learn how to play tennis. Costa spearheaded the efforts to create the United States Blind Tennis Association (USBTA), driven by the desire to create an environment where she could share her passion for tennis with her visually impaired daughter.
BVI tennis is played on shorter courts utilizing audible balls, shorter racquets and tactile lines.
On Sept. 22-23, thanks to the coordinated efforts of Chris Stuart, USTA Southern Tennis Service Representative, Adaptive Tennis, Training & Arkansas, and Jaime Kaplan, Southern Tennis Foundation (STF) Director, Development & Operations, and Dr. Cindy Gibson, the superintendent for the Georgia Academy for the Blind (GAB), USBTA’s dynamic duo held a workshop at the Academy’s gym, in Macon. They taught 25 tennis professionals and volunteers from three states how to successfully teach tennis to the BVI population.
Gibson, who has worked for the GAB for 17 years, had never heard of BVI tennis. “Jaime Kaplan got in touch with me. She explained the goals and mission and wanted to connect with some of our students. I told her, ‘You called the right number.’ ”
The first day was a train the coach session where the coaches put on makeshift glasses which simulated actual blindness or visual impairments. Doing so not only underscores the techniques used to teach BVI tennis, but it also gives coaches a glimpse of what their students experience as BVI individuals. The coaches went through progression stages from assessment – actual rallying with BVI equipment.
Costa and Dilettuso bounced around the gym, dispensing quick words of advice and encouragement to the coaches while gently reminding them to use the start words of play for BVI athletes: “ready”, “yes” and “play.”
20 juniors invited to second day
The second day, the academy invited 20 kids ranging from totally blind to significantly visually impaired.
“I was so impressed on [day two] for many reasons,” says Kaplan, “Dana and Dave’s amazing passion for BVI tennis, a passion I’ve never seen in my 52 years of being involved in the game.
“From the transformation of the kids. Some didn’t want to be there but after 15 minutes were all in.”
Josie St. John, one of the students at the academy, had never played blind tennis before.
“It was fun being able to serve the ball over the net,” she says, holding on to her cane. “It was very powerful what you guys showed us. You showed me I have a talent. I never thought I could do this. It’s inspirational.”
Gibson envisions contacting other schools for the blind, inviting them to Macon for tennis tournaments or clinics if they’ve never tried tennis. “We have lodging, and we can feed the students,” she explained. “We need to start a real conversation about this.”
For coaches interested in working with BVI students, Dilettuso said, “Remember and respect the courage these athletes exhibit while presenting themselves in learning a sighted sport, unsighted.” During the workshop he constantly reminded the coaches of “language specificity.”
“Choose descriptive, [directional] and concise words to get your point across,” he could be heard saying.
He also adds, “Celebrate the small wins your students learn. And, as you would push your sighted students when they have mastered a skill, do the same with BVI students –they want to be challenged, too.”
USTA Southern was well-represented. In attendance were former President & CEO Randy Stephens, STF Chairman Bonnie Vandegrift and staffers Bill Dopp, Allan Jensen and Cee Jai Jones.
If you’d like to host a BVI program or clinic in your area, contact Dana Costa at email@example.com.
There’s nothing more rewarding than to see what you thought was impossible become possible. Jamie Myers-Watkins, a Macon native, now Atlanta tennis pro says of the workshop, “It’s life-changing.”