“It doesn’t take eyesight to have a vision,” visually impaired kids were told Saturday at the 2012 Paralympic Experience held at Skyview High.
The Northwest Association for Blind Athletes (NWABA) hosted, in conjunction with Montana School for the Deaf and Blind and U.S. Paralympics, the 2012 Paralympic Experience, a division of the U.S. Olympic Committee, as a pilot for future statewide Paralympic events.
“You can do anything you envision yourself doing, but you may just have to work a little harder to achieve it,” executive director Billy Henry said.
In 2007, at the age of 15, Henry co-founded NWABA, based in Vancouver, Wash., with a vision to provide life-changing opportunities that help build bridges and friendships for visually impaired youth through sports.
The nonprofit organization is based in Vancouver, Wash., and has served more than 1,000 blind and visually impaired youth since its inception. The program focuses on 5- to 21-year-olds, but it also serves adults in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.
“Our programs enable people who are blind and visually impaired to try a sport for the first time and to participate on regional teams,” Henry said. “It also works with athletes, their families, educators and community organizations to adapt sports for those who are blind and visually impaired.”
Skyview High’s gymnasium was filled with about 50 people who participated in sporting activities geared for visual impairments.
The day featured tandem biking, judo and goalball, a sport designed specifically for visually impaired athletes, for 8 visually impaired students as well as their families.
The object of goalball, conceived specifically for blind athletes, is for a team to roll a soccer-sized ball, which has bells inside, past an opposing team and into the goal.
Teams made up of visually impaired students, their siblings and parents and event volunteers from the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind in Great Falls took turns competing. They wore ski goggles, the lens masked with black electric tape, relying on their hearing and verbal communication.
“It makes the game an equal playing field because nobody can see,” said Tina Bolt, parent of visually impaired 8-year-old Emily Bolt. “It’s a great exercise for parents and siblings to gain a better understanding of what it is like to be without vision—you have to work as a team relying on your other senses.”
Emily Bolt, a student at Alkali Creek Elementary, was born with optic nerve hypoplasia, the underdevelopment or absence of the optic nerve.
“The day was very, very, very fun,” Emily said. “I got to hang out with friends and learn new things.”
Like Emily, Henry was also born with the condition. He attended the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind through seventh grade, until he and his family moved to Washington.
Henry’s former teacher in Great Falls and a volunteer at the Paralympic Experience, Sue Stewart, said she remembers it was always a vision of Henry’s to start his own business that focused on people who are blind.
“He made it happen,” Stewart said. “He wasn’t much of an athlete when he was younger, but look at him now,” she joked.
The goal of the program is to show people who are blind or visually impaired how sports and living a healthy, active lifestyle can have a positive impact on their lives, Henry said. He described his sporting event as a “parallel games” to the Olympics. That’s how the name Paralympic Games came to be.
But, he said, the idea for a high-level sports competition for people with disabilities developed after World War II. The first competition of its type was held in 1948 for service men and women who had been wounded in combat.
Henry said that statistics indicate about 70 percent of blind and visually impaired youth nationwide do not participate in a physical-education curriculum.
“There is isolation that comes with that, so this event aims to bring these kids together to have fun and engage in opportunities they may otherwise not have at their schools,” Henry said.
McKayla Jensen, 16, a junior at Senior High, said she hopes the next event draws more people.
“The event is a great thing,” Jensen said. She was born with coloboma, a condition where the optic nerve doesn’t fully develop.
“Not only does it benefit kids with visual impairments, but it brings awareness to the community too,” she said. “People sometimes think we are unable, so don’t expect as much from us, but we are just as capable, and we can do the same as sighted people.”
The organization relies heavily on volunteers for the clinics and other events, which are free to participants. Programs are funded with donations and grants from individuals, businesses, service organizations and foundations. For more information on the event, call executive director Billy Henry at 360-448-7254 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.