Because I am a visually impaired adult I have had many opportunities to speak to parents of visually impaired children who quite literally want to know how I’m doing. They want to know how I dealt with being visually impaired as a kid and how I am handling life as a visually impaired adult. They want to know if I went to college, if I played sports, if I am married, if I have kids and if I do have kids are they visually impaired too. To answer those questions, I did go to college and have a BS in exercise science and an MS in computer information systems. If you are reading this blog, you should know I am still pretty heavily involved in sports, but in high school I wrestled, ran track, and was on a cycling team. I am married to a woman who is not visually impaired, and we have a son who is also not visually impaired. So basically, what they want to know, is will their kids be able to lead normal lives and they want to know how they should treat their children to help they have as normal a life as possible.
Because I am visually impaired and more specifically because I am a visually impaired judoka, and even more specifically, now that I am a coach of the US Paralympic Judo team, coaches often as me how they should treat/teach visually impaired judoka who come into their clubs wanting to learn judo.
The focus of this article is obviously the judo aspect but my answer or my philosophy in both of these situations is pretty much the same and I feel I can best explain my feeling on this situation if I speak from some personal experiences both as a visually impaired kid and athlete.
I’ll start by answer both questions. How do you treat visually impaired kids and visually impaired athletes? Just like everyone else! I am certainly no model parent and because I only have one son who is not visually impaired, maybe I cannot speak to the issue of raising visually impaired kids from a parental perspective. I can however speak to this issue as a child of a parent who had two sons; one who is visually impaired and one who is not. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I have the greatest mother in the world. I do, but I’m not going to sit here and tell you that. I believe with all my heart that the way my mother treated me as a child and teenager has played huge role in my success, not only in judo but in life. What she did was treat me just like she treated my older brother. That doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but it truly is. My mother never sheltered me and treated me like a visually impaired kid who needed special treatment or special protection. She treated me like a kid. Don’t get me wrong, as a parent we are expected to protect out children and there were times or situations that, because of my visual impairment, I needed extra help or a little extra protection, but, just like with my brother, she allowed me to experience things and learn from my mistakes. Because I was a very adventurous boy, we made a few trips to the emergency room or doctor’s office for casts and stitches. These injuries did not come from me being blind, they came from me doing things that I probably should not have been doing. I will not say that I always learned from my mistakes the first time either.
The point I am trying to make here is that because my mother never held me back and never treated me specially, I grew up believing I could do anything I set my mind to doing. She also understood my limits and helped me find different ways to accomplish thing things I wanted to accomplish. She taught me to work hard and that if I really wanted something, if I was willing to work for it, there was nothing I could not do. My brother never cut me any slack either. He treated me just like any older brother treated an annoying little brother. He certainly never minded hitting a kid with glasses. He certainly made me tough. He also inspired me to excel in sports like he did. My bother played everything when he was a kid and played everything well. Just like everything else, I had to find my own way to excel. When we played baseball, when I hit the ball I could hit it to the fence, but I struck out far more often the I got a hit so I realized baseball was not my sport, so I found my way to wrestling which eventually lead me to judo.
So to my mother and brother, I say THANK YOU! You probably have no idea the role you both played in my success!
Now, on to judo! I pretty much have the same philosophy when working with visually impaired athletes. In this instance I can speak from both sides; as a visually impaired athlete, and a coach of visually impaired athletes. As an athlete, I can tell you that I never wanted to be treated like a visually impaired athlete; I wanted to be treated like everyone else and held to the same standard as everyone else. Just like with anything else, I sometimes had to go about learning a little differently than everyone else but when it came to being critiqued on my technique or graded on a belt test, I was held to the same standard as everyone else. My sensei, Connie Lavergne, use to say Ã¢â‚¬Å“Perfection is all I askÃ¢â‚¬Â and she expected the same level of perfection from me that she expected from my classmates. She also never praised me after losing a match and patted me on the back and said Ã¢â‚¬Å“good jobÃ¢â‚¬Â when it was not. I would never accepted that type of treatment, and I challenge all blind and visually impaired people, whether in judo or another sport or in college or anywhere else, not to accept people praising you for anything less than your absolutely best! I think that there is an epidemic in this country of celebrating mediocrity. I see it so much in youth sports and I often see coaches praise visually impaired athletes for a poor performance. Praising me for a poor performance teaches me that I don’t have to try hard, I can just go out there and not try, and then be celebrated for a lack of effort, and that is doing me a disservice.
I am not saying that you should not praise an athlete who gives their best effort and falls short. We all lose, but if I leave it all on the mat and fall short you can praise the effort but that does not mean you should not correct my mistakes or work with me on how I can overcome whatever situation led to the loss.
As coach, I am amazed when I see a visually impaired athlete doing something incorrectly and then I see a coach say, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Great JobÃ¢â‚¬Â then turn around and correct a sighted student who is doing the same thing or even doing it better. As an athlete I wanted to learn and get better just like my teammates. If I am doing something wrong or incorrectly, I want to be corrected. It may feel better to hear that I am doing a wonderful job, but I would rather be corrected so my technique is actually good and more importantly to me, will work in competition.
I know it can be a challenge and even though I was a visually impaired athlete, I had to learn to teach visually impaired athletes. As coach it is my job teach judo to everyone who comes into my dojo wanting to learn. I have had many blind and visually impaired athletes come through my club and it has been a learning process from me and I have worked with our other instructors as well. I hold blind and visually impaired athletes to the same standards as every other member of my club. That may mean that I spend a little more time with someone who needs it or I might have to change my approach to teaching a technique to help someone who cannot see, and I am ok with that. I will always give more of my time if someone needs help as long as they are putting forth the effort to learn.
As I said earlier, I would never allow someone to treat me differently because I don’t see as well. By doing that, I am basically agreeing that I cannot be as good as the other students, and it is unacceptable for someone to treat me that way or for me to allow them to.
I like quotes so I’ll end with a quote I tell people and a quick story.
After moving to Colorado to train full-time with the Paralympic coach, I went back and fought in my home club’s annual tournament that I had helped start and name, the Swamp Classic. I fought a tough match and though I fought hard, I did not fight well and lost. When I came off the mat, one of the kids in my old college club who knew who I was because my sensei had talked about me being World and Paralympic champion patted me on that back and said that I had done a great job. I knew he was saying it partly because it was a brawl, but mostly because he was impressed, not by my skill, but because he knew I was visually impaired and fought so hard. I just smiled and asked what match he was watching because I fought terribly. I knew he didn’t mean it as a slight in any way but I have never wanted anyone to be proud that I am visually impaired and am working hard. I want to be praised because I am an athlete who is working hard.
Thanks for reading.
Talk to you soonÃ¢â‚¬Â¦.