There are an estimated 52,000 school-aged children who are blind and visually impaired in the United States. Nearly 70 percent of these children do not participate in even a limited physical education curriculum. This statistic can be attributed in large part to the transition that many students with visual impairments must make from residential schools, where physical educators with specialized knowledge in vision impairment deliver customized services in relatively small classes, to public schools where educators often do not have the knowledge, time, and resources to adequately serve this student population.
The Purpose of the United States Association of Blind Athletes
The United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) was founded in 1976 by Dr. Charles Buell for the purpose of improving the lives of people who are blind and visually impaired. Since then, USABA, a Colorado-based 501(c) (3) organization, has evolved into a national organization that provides sports opportunities to thousands of athletes who are blind and visually impaired of all ages and abilities. A member of the US Olympic Committee, USABA enhances the lives of people who are blind and visually impaired through sports and physical activity by providing opportunities in various sports, including, but not limited to, track and field, Nordic and alpine skiing, biathlon, judo, wrestling, swimming, tandem cycling, powerlifting, rowing, showdown, triathlon, archery and goalball. USABA recognizes that sports opportunities allow people who are blind and visually impaired to develop independence through competition. Like sighted people, people who are blind and visually impaired must have the opportunity to experience the thrill of victory and the reality of defeat.
Participation in Sports and Recreation Has a Lifelong Benefit
The benefits of sports and recreation have been shown to continue from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. A recent survey of USABA members revealed that not only do participants benefit academically from their involvement in sports during elementary and high school, but 57 percent of USABA members continued on to higher education to pursue a college degree. This rate is more than double the national average of 23 percent for their visually impaired peers.
The National Fitness Challenge
Created by the United States Association of Blind Athletes, funded by the WellPoint Foundation, and supported by 18 agencies that work with youth who have visual impairments, the National Fitness Challenge is aimed at increasing involvement in both physical activity and higher education for students with some form of vision loss.
"Each participating agency submits baseline data and monthly updates that are used to create and modify achievable fitness and weight loss goals for the [participating] teens to help them decrease their body mass index," says Mark Lucas, executive director of USABA. To support the program, USABA and the WellPoint Foundation provide talking pedometers as well as fitness and nutrition coaches for each agency. "The WellPoint Foundation is committed to helping children and adults have active lives and avoid the health risks associated with sedentary lifestyles and obesity," says Mike Walsh, president and general manager of WellPoint's Specialty Business. "We believe no one should ever be denied the right to enjoy the physical and emotional benefits of exercise, and we are proud to partner with the USABA to ensure that vision impairments do not limit the recreational opportunities afforded to teenagers across the country."
Each of the 18 participating agencies will focus on a single sport. For example, some are playing goalball while others have a running league, swim team, ski team or tandem cycling.
The top boy and girl from each agency will have the opportunity to participate in a final four-day sports camp in Colorado Springs, June 18–21, 2012. Athletes at the camp will participate in track and field, goalball, swimming, and strength and conditioning workouts in order to learn more about fitness and become more involved in their local community. Lucas explains, "Our goal for the National Fitness Challenge is [that] the top 36 teens will go back to their communities and join sports teams. We want to reward the teens for their hard work and dedication towards leading an active and healthy lifestyle. Each participant will be provided skill development that can lead to national and international competions."
These 700 teens participating in the National Fitness Challenge are breaking sterotypes by showing how active people with disabilities can be, while enjoying themselves, becoming physically fit, and realizing new levels of independence, confidence, and determination. As the National Fitness Challenge year comes to a close, USABA and the WellPoint Foundation hope the athletes met their goal of a 50 percent total decrease in body mass index.
Operation Mission Vision
USABA is dedicated to providing physical activities for everyone who is blind and visually impaired, especially veterans and military service members who are blind and visually impaired. Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom resulted in the highest percentage of eye wounds of any major conflict since World War I, so it's particularly important to USABA to provide opportunities for returning wounded warriors.
USABA began Operation Mission Vision in the summer of 2008 with a goal to bring normalcy back into the lives of veterans and active duty service members who are blind and visually impaired, and to accelerate their rehabilitation process through sport, recreation, and physical activity. Navy veteran Lonnie Bedwell, 46, lost his sight 15 years ago and has been a member of USABA for many years. He says, "I want to thank all of you for these opportunities and allowing me to be a part of USABA. USABA and all of you that run it are absolutely first class. When you give your time to help others, that's something that can never be replaced. It's phenomenal. I just wish I could repay these guys. I feel like the only way I can do that is to pay it forward. It's like I was in front of a huge brick wall. No way around it, no way through it, and they put a door in it, and then [USABA] took me through it. The events, a lot of the time I don't know how you put into words what they do for people."
Participation in physical activity is often the most critical mental and physical aspect of the rehabilitation process for both the injured person and his or her support network. In partnership with the United States Olympic Committee's Military Sports Program, USABA fully funds veterans and their coaches so they can attend and participate in the USABA summer and winter sports festivals.
Goalball was developed after WWII to keep veterans who lost their sight physically active. Goalball is a unique ball game played by people who are blind and visually impaired, though many sighted people also play on local teams for fun. Goalball uses a ball that has bells inside of it so the players can locate the ball's position using audible cues. For this reason, silence at events is vital. Goalball is played on a court with tactile markings so players can determine their location on the court and the direction they're facing. All players wear eye masks to block out light and thus equalize visual impairment among the athletes with differing levels of functional vision.
Goalball has become a premier team sport and is a part of the Summer Paralympic Games. It's played in 112 countries in all International Blind Sport Association (IBSA)regions. In partnership with the US Paralympics, a division of the United States Olympic Committee, USABA manages the sport of goalball from the grassroots to the elite level. USABA's goalball season is starting soon and goalball teams around the national will play in tournaments with the hopes of becoming national champions. More information on the goalball schedule is available on the USABA website.
Additional USABA Events
USABA offers many other sporting events for youth such as the IBSA World Youth Championships, which occurs every two years. In addition, more than 250 athletes ages 12–19 from more than 20 countries compete in sports that include judo, goalball, swimming, and track and field. Team USA is represented by young athletes currently competing on their high school or club teams. USABA also provides regional goalball tournaments, sports education camps, summer sports festivals, annual winter sports festivals, and cycling camps. More information is available on the USABA website.
Get Moving and Experience the Benefits of Physical Activity
Sports and physical activity are gifts that keep on giving throughout your life. Regular exercise can help protect us all from heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, noninsulin-dependent diabetes, obesity, back pain, and osteoporosis, and can improve our mood and help us better manage stress. For the greatest overall health benefits, experts recommend that we do 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic activity three or more times a week and some type of muscle strengthening activity and stretching at least twice a week. USABA strives to be an easy-access portal for any information and events for all people with visual impairments who want to participate in sports and physical activity. Parents, teachers, community program leaders, coaches, volunteers, and people who are blind and visually impaired are invited to seek out USABA staff and coaches for their expertise. As the United States Olympic Committee is for the Olympic movement, the United States Association of Blind Athletes is for the blind and visually impaired athletic movement.