None of us who are blind or low vision typically think about walking as an area of concern. When that wheelchair is offered at the airport or new acquaintances stammer about our needing to locate an elevator in lieu of stairs, most of us are quick to point out that seeing is what we find difficult, and that walking comes naturally.

And most of us do plenty of it, which is a good thing from the perspective of health and fitness.

So let's be sure we do it correctly, says Mel Scott, founder of BlindAlive:

The power should come from pushing off the back toes, and not pulling forward with the front leg. Imagine yourself pushing the ground behind you and your front leg goes along for the ride. The front foot lands squarely on the heel and then rolls on to the ball of the foot; pinky side landing first and big toe hitting last. The front foot then begins to push the ground behind as the front foot swings through.

She then goes on to talk about the importance of the arms, swinging rhythmically in harmony with the legs. And, of course, the problem is clear: while holding a dog's harness or a long white cane, a blind person can't swing those arms quite so freely and walk safely, too.

No problem, says Mel Scott, in keeping with the BlindAlive and Eyes-Free fitness philosophy. Stand tall and proud when you walk, she says, walk as much as you can, and when you hang up the harness or stand the cane back in the corner, shake yourself out and do some serious stretching to make sure everything in your body is restored to being centered and aligned.

This rumination about walking is just one tiny blog post on a site that is teeming with accessible information and instruction to help people who are blind or low vision get fit, stay fit, and be healthy.

The Birth of BlindAlive and Eyes-Free Fitness

Like so many products and services we all enjoy, BlindAlive sprang from one person's frustration that something she needed and wanted wasn't already in the marketplace.

Visually impaired since childhood, Mel Scott has long been committed to exercise and fitness. Her shelves, she says, are lined with myriad exercise videos, each containing elements of frustration for someone who can't see the images on the screen. If you have a visual impairment and have attended an exercise class or purchased an exercise DVD, you are having one of those "aha" moments yourself right now.

You are moving along when the instructor says, "Bend like this" or "Watch this" or "Extend your right leg (or arm or foot or hand) this way." Which way? What is she doing exactly?

Mel Scott says her particular epiphany came while riding her stationary bike: If what the blind world needed and didn't have were fitness workouts anyone could follow by listening, why didn't she just create them?

And so BlindAlive was born.

What is Eyes-Free Fitness?

While BlindAlive's founder says she hopes people with sight will use the Eyes-Free Fitness workouts, too, all workouts have been developed with keen focus on being entirely accessible and user friendly for people with visual impairments. Workouts convey, in clear, direct language, the posture and movements required for maximum effect. While the workouts are completely audio and verbal, they are delivered with loads of energy and positive reinforcement, conveyed both by the voices of the workout directors and the underlying music.

One true bonus, found only on BlindAlive, are two additional files included in every workout purchase. One is an MP3 file, the other a text file, and both feature a detailed description of every pose included in the particular workout. Description examples might say: "Step out with your right foot and bring your left foot in to meet it." And: "Bring both arms straight out to your sides so your body is making the shape of a cross or the print letter T." The audio versions of these accompanying descriptive tracks are voiced by Mel Scott herself.

Workouts for Every Body

Driving the BlindAlive project is a passion for fitness and health and the belief that attaining and maintaining a healthy body are reasonable and achievable goals for everyone. Exercising and staying healthy can seem more complicated to someone with a visual impairment for reasons that have nothing to do with the exercise itself. It's hard to get to the gym. You can't read the signs or the displays on the exercise equipment at the gym. You can't follow the movements of the "watch what I do" instructor in a class or on a video.

Recognizing that people with visual impairments, because of real or imagined obstacles, will begin a fitness program coming from all levels of experience and stamina, the BlindAlive and Eyes-Free Fitness team offers workouts at every level of intensity.

Primary categories of workouts available are Cardio, Weight Lifting and Body Sculpting, Whole Body, Yoga, and Pilates.

Within each of these categories, you will find workouts from novice to experienced levels, from Chair Yoga to Boot Camp for the Blind.

Working Out and Measuring Up

Because BlindAlive strives to present all aspects of health and fitness to blind and low vision customers, the site has additional benefits beyond the workouts themselves. Favorite products include an ergonomic backpack and various gear that can be used to support the workouts. Blogs and podcasts focus on a range of health topics from nutrition to eye conditions, exercise equipment to health alerts. The BlindAlive team is composed of both blind and sighted individuals, so information is consistently presented from a perspective of full accessibility to people with visual impairments.

The website itself is easily navigated by those who use screen readers. You can fairly effortlessly read descriptions of workouts, listen to samples, browse blog posts and podcasts, sign up for email alerts. One minor annoyance that I would strongly urge BlindAlive to correct is the location of pricing information. You cannot see how much a workout or product will cost until you click on the "Buy" button. Then and only then are you taken to a page with product names and prices.

BlindAlive has covered all bases in making purchased workouts as user friendly as possible. You can download a purchased workout immediately and transfer it to the device of your choice. Alternatively, you can order it on a USB flash drive, an SD card or, in some instances, on a CD. No matter which delivery format you select, your purchase will include all files: the workout itself, the audio file describing each pose in that workout, and the text file with written descriptions of all poses.

Do the workouts measure up as advertised? In preparing this article, I listened to all samples on the site and purchased two of them: Chair Yoga and Chair Pilates with Ring. (I also purchased the ring recommended for use with the Pilates workout.)

All files were easily downloaded for immediate use. The ring took about ten days for delivery. The workouts are warm, encouraging, energizing. The bonus descriptive files were well done and extremely helpful. The overall product is thorough and professional.

Bottom line: BlindAlive and Eyes-Free Fitness definitely have room to grow. In the site's present state, however, it has plenty of quality content to offer blind and low vision customers. Whether you are a couch potato or a seasoned athlete, you will find something here to help you meet your fitness goals and even keep you smiling on the journey.

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Deborah Kendrick
Article Topic
Access to Fitness