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How to Be Athletic with a Visual Impairment

Categories: Blind or Visually Impaired

Athletics: Photo of a group of people running

Abigail Lanier, center, runs with help from a sighted guide.

College Success Program mentor coordinator Abigail Lanier shares how and why she became involved in athletics.
Everyone knows the importance of exercise when it comes to our physical health. Getting your heart rate up a few times a week has shown to prevent and protect our bodies from many types of disease. When I began college, I learned that recreational sports did more than just help my physical welfare, though. The enthusiasm I had for being active and a part of a community was contagious. The more I felt comfortable in my body and with my disability the more others around me felt eager to learn about disability. Physical training and setting goals boosted my self-confidence and pushed me to apply that same type of effort in the academic and professional areas of my life.

How do you find recreational athletics and sports on your college campus?

Most colleges have a Student Recreational Center where you can take group fitness classes, like yoga or spin cycling. Access to the facilities (locker rooms, basketball courts, climbing wall, etc.) and group classes are usually tied into your tuition, so why not explore what’s available? If you enjoy being in nature, finding out when other students might be going for a hike could also be a great place to start. Some schools even have an Outdoor Programs or Outdoor Activities center or department. At my school, we had one housed within the Student Recreation Center. They offered classes you could sign up for that spanned a few weeks, as well as weekend and school break trips you could experience with fellow students. The variety of activities ranged from Kayaking 101 to spring break on the Appalachian Trail.

What sorts of accommodations will I need to participate in recreational athletics and sports?

I often attended the yoga and Pilates classes while I was in school. Showing up early and meeting the instructor, who was typically a fellow peer, and asking him or her to be very verbal about poses and postures we would be doing was the only accommodation I needed. If you have more usable vision, participating in group fitness classes might just involve choosing a spot in the classroom closer to the instructor. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for what you need. Teachers at any level, those with a doctorate and those who just enjoy the subject, are always excited when their students have questions. The outdoor events I participated in involved none of my vision. Rock climbing with a harness and rope system entailed feeling the face of the mountain and searching for places where I could get a hold or put my foot to push myself up. Other students would act as my belay on the ground, connected to the same rope that was connected to my harness and threaded through the protective hardware at the top of the mountain, and would offer suggestions on which direction I should climb to get better holds. When I went on group hikes, I would use a hiking pole or my guide dog to navigate the path. I would talk with the trip or activity leader beforehand and explain the extent of my vision. There wasn’t much accommodation I needed other than a sighted guide at times or the opportunity to feel the hardware we were using. These kinds of opportunities let me meet a lot of great people and gave me a lot of self-confidence. Likewise, I indirectly taught my peers about disability in a way that they might have not realized.

Sometimes it’s people in your networks who motivate you.

Later on in college I spent a summer as an unpaid intern in New York City. City living can be expensive. Yoga classes were too much for me, and hiking wasn’t a possibility. A friend of mine who is also blind was training for a triathlon. She introduced me to an organization which promotes mainstream athletics for people with all disabilities. I came to one of their group workouts in Central Park one Saturday morning and ran a few miles with a volunteer guide. Running hadn’t been something I enjoyed previously, but I was so starved for exercise I was willing to give it another chance. We used a tether that each of us held on to, and my guide would alert me to any bumps in the road or walkers/runners we were going to pass. Just like my college experience, I found running to be beneficial for all the obvious health reasons, but I also made friends and found a community of people who were supportive. Back at school one of my adult mentors was happy to hear I had picked up running over the summer. She offered to run with me and act as my guide, so I continued to use a tether made out of fabric, and we would run together a couple of times a week. Sometimes finding access or ways to accommodate the activities you’re interested in comes through conversation and a willingness to do things unconventionally. If you’re nervous about trying something new on your own, ask your roommate about going to the kickboxing class together next week. If you’re not familiar with the layout or features of the equipment in the gym, ask the attendant at the gym to show you around the space and explain what each button on the treadmill does. Get your heart rate up and have fun doing it.
Abigail LanierAbigail Lanier is a Learning Ally College Success Program mentor and professional audio engineer. As a long distance runner, she is a member of Achilles International, an organization promoting mainstream athletics for people with disabilities. She has competed in several national half marathons and triathlons, and participated in her first full marathon (The New York City Marathon) in November 2015. Often people are surprised at how she lives such an active lifestyle, and she hopes to teach others that the quality of life for a person with a disability should never be viewed as less than that of an able-bodied person.