Dancing in the Invisible World

How to make physically active lifestyle including everyday fitness more available to blind people?

by Pavla Kovaříková

(This paper was presented at the Adapted Physical Activities throughout the Life Span conference held by the Faculty of Sports and Physical Education of Charles University on September 22, 2017.)

I’d like to thank the organizers for giving me a chance to address you today. Many thanks for that trust.

There is a lot of information out there today on the topic of sport and blind people, and how to do different types of sports without sight. I am not going to give you an overview of that sort. My field is everyday practice of blindness, exploring lifelong experience, observing and discussing with other blindness practitioners, comparing, analyzing and debating with others including sighted professionals as well as friends. In other words, I am interested in everything directly connected to everyday conditions of total or partial blindness.

Let me offer you a couple of comments and ideas which might be of interest and practical use.

First, however, where do I come from?

As a child with extremely poor vision I was born to a very athletic family. I took part in all kinds of sport activities which of course had to be adapted for me.

My vision at that time was something like this: the whole world appeared to me as if everything was a fascinating vibrating batik, colorful smudges blurred together. I was able to notice bright color contrast but could never be sure what it was I was looking at. In an unknown or too diverse environment, I was not able to move about without a guide. A turning point came for me at the age of 12 when Pavel Wiener, a highly respected mobility and orientation instructor, showed up in our school. The discovery of the long white cane technique was a real revelation. It has changed my self-concept, gave me unexpected independence and dignity, the sense of freedom which I’d never imagined I might gain. When I started to go around Prague by myself, the internal feeling of victory and pride was incredible and the later Paralympic medals could not be compared to that.

I’ll never stop being grateful to Pavel and the inventors of the cane.

The cane together with Braille skills acquired during my primary schooling and especially my mom’s common-sense upbringing prepared me well for becoming totally blind at the age of 15.

Leisure time sport activities with my family and within the special school for legally blind children gradually turned into a systematic work-out routine under professional guidance. I ended up competing at the national and international level up to the top sporting events. Apart from working on good results in my traditional sports (track and road running, cross-country skiing, swimming and also tandem cycling), I always enjoyed exploring new physical activities, particularly the ones which involved endurance and dynamics. I experimented with different types of sport such as rock climbing, attended step aerobics classes with sighted people, always loved ice-skating, canoeing, until today I like to ride a scooter while my husband is running next to me and so on.

What blindness has taught me throughout my life is to be creative and to improvise since many opportunities, recommended techniques and proven solutions are based on the ability to see. Blind people are expected not to move much or to move rather slowly. And really, blindness makes me slow down, forces me to concentrate more, plan well in advance, be systematic, very organized and much more. It is common that blindness is perceived as a kind of an overall poorer health condition which should be taken into consideration most of the time. I have been offered to use an elevator instead of the stairs; to sit down when people of my age and fitness level are standing around. Blind people very often develop a sitting lifestyle even though it might not be their choice of preference. Too often, blind children are learning that running around is a high-risk activity as they perceive nervousness of adults watching them. Those blind children are often directly or indirectly discouraged from actively exploring their environment and their physical abilities. They are not helped to overcome and learn lessons from small incidents which must be experienced in learning how the world looks like and what it means to move about. Step by step, those blind children are building up physical resignation. They learn to expect a passive role without moving. Today’s blind children unfortunately have little chance to be in regular touch with their blind peers and experience natural running games and playing together. This might be a crucial opportunity to get inspired by one another, to learn how to go about walking and running around without a guide and even without a cane, how to develop a sense for obstacles, the so called echolocation, and how to use hands and feet to quickly and safely move around. I am missing those spontaneous leisure time physical activities in which sighted children love to be engaged all the time. Blind children are often navigated to do meaningful things with useful outcomes. And sure there is a lot that must be mastered if a blind child is to grow up into a successful and happy blind adult. Let me recommend to you one documentary by Helena Trestikova from 1979 which is called A Touch of Light (Dotek světla). In 14 minutes you can just watch blind children playing spontaneously, including running and other physical activities done just for fun.

Many blind people are coming up asking what they could start doing to feel better in their body, what kind of fitness program or something else I would suggest which doesn’t require finding a guide and which doesn’t mean tedious commuting to an unknown place. In the blind people population there is an urging issue of obesity and bodily troubles due to asymmetrical postures in basic everyday activities, especially cane, guide dog or human guide walking. Blindness forces us to be on guard most of the time, to concentrate, to try to pick up bits and pieces all the time in an effort to understand what’s going on around us. It all means the permanent building-up of a high degree of tension in the body.

When considering blind people and their fitness issues it is important to be aware of the fact that blind people do not have a chance to learn and practice a proper healthy walking pattern. Why is it so? There is always something in one of our hands – the cane, the arm of my guide, the harness of my guide dog or a combination of these things. We never walk with relaxed arms. It means a constant asymmetrical overburdening of different body parts and frequent faulty body postures. This is very characteristic of blind people population.

I am not the only one who strongly encourages parents, friends and other sighted people around us, the blind, to look for opportunities for us to experience walking free, just using what we can feel beneath our feet and what we can hear. When going for hiking trips, look for moments when I as a blind person can walk next to you or behind you without a physical contact. It can be a game for both of us, a great exercise for strengthening communication and mutual trust. Try to pick up a safe place where your blind partner can experiment with navigating, ideally somewhere on a large and relatively even meadow. A great aid for exercises of that kind can be a wireless bell, an easy way to mark an orientation point, a backpack left aside on the grass and so on. It proves also to be very useful when the clothing of the guide is rustling, meaning all those modern wind and water proof materials.

For the blind person, on the contrary, it is useful to wear something as quiet as possible. Consider contrasting color combination if some residual sight is still in place. It is nice when a guide has something which makes a tiny sound so that I’m not dependent only on your voice. Keys or a fistful of coins in the pocket or a jingle bell, for example. We used to run with a baby rattle.

In addition, consider weather conditions. More intense rain and wind deteriorate strongly the ability to hear, the same is true about frozen snow. These conditions can mean that blind people may have a difficulty to manage things they commonly do without an extra effort.

As for guiding during a longer walk or hike it is good to think about changing the guiding technique in small details not to stiffen an arm or a back in one position for too long. But never alter the basic guiding technique which must always stay the same. Under any circumstances, the blind person holds the guide and the guide always goes first. There are many good reasons to accept and not modify this basic rule, we don’t have time to go into detail now though.

A lot of things can also be done at home so that blind people can become more physically active. I strongly recommend that they find a way of walking at home, make enough room to be able to take a few steps there and back without bumping into furniture. And when being on the phone – blind people tend to spend a lot of time on the phone – walk. My own home is often the only place where I can switch full attention off and relax completely. Make the home as spacious as possible, create a nice safe place where it is possible to exercise, stretch, jump a bit or even dance. It would be very useful for many blind people to meet someone who could help them think up a nice home-based fitness program, a simple circle work-out using furniture, and who would consider what more can be done. A stationary bike can be a good piece of equipment for home, riding it can be combined with listening to audio books which is very popular among the blind.

As for conducting exercise programs with one or more blind participants let me list a couple of basic principles here. Consider acoustic conditions of the room – blind participants must hear the instructor well – they absolutely depend on verbal guidance.

It is usually difficult to hear in rooms which are large, with a high ceiling, with little furniture and without a carpet on the floor.

A problem shared by all blind participants of fitness classes open to the general public is music which is too loud to hear verbal instructions well enough.

Soft music may, on the other hand, serve as a significant orientation point in space; it may help in keeping track of directions.

The orientation of a blind person will be further enhanced if the person exercises in a place which can be detected by feet. It can be a mat or a small carpet with a different surface than the rest of the floor. It can also be just a borderline of two surfaces. Such tactile anchoring in a room with other people allows the blind to make proper turns and return to a proper original position and also to stay in one place. Moreover, it supports a good feeling of one’s better balance and overall feeling if the blind person exercises directly next to the wall or something solid rather than in the middle of a large room.

The instructor should always first try to describe and explain everything in words. The more specific he or she is, the easier the cooperation with a blind person will be. Verbal instructions should always be primary. Further correction and additional information can be communicated by looking at the instructor by hands or by the instructor showing details directly on the body of the blind participant. Instructors should, however, use touching very cautiously and should not expect that every blind person would like and prefer it.

It seems to me that touching as a main tool of instructing blind people tends to be overestimated, while verbal instructions are underestimated. To provide accurate verbal instructions and overall guidance is a special skill which sighted instructors must master if they want to work with blind participants.

To sum up, many blind people lead a sedentary lifestyle because they unintentionally accepted it as the only option. They are not aware of simple things, little moments when they could become physically active more, which might gradually lead to a better inner feeling in their life even with benefits for their overall health conditions.

Blindness is limiting in many aspects of life. We cannot look at other people to get inspired by how they sit, stand, walk, run, move about, what they do in various situations. I wish blind people became more aware of ordinary opportunities and little things they can do to move. Sighted people can help them with that a great deal. A lifestyle which includes more moving, more physical activity doesn’t have to be anything sophisticated, done in specially designed programs and courses where a blind person depends on specially trained guides and professional coaching. It can start at home, in the environment well-known to the blind person and it can be as simple as a small fitness routine, a combination of some stretching and warm-up exercising, a bit of jogging and jumping on one spot or a little dancing. People like family, friends and professionals can help them with how to go about a home-based fitness program; help them find the form of fitness they would enjoy, and encourage them to carry on.

Let me show you an excerpt of a fitness home session which doesn’t prepare me for anything specific; no specific outcome can be measured. The only purpose of that activity is to relax, get a bit of good work-out, enjoy moving, and get in touch with oneself. Although it might seem like nothing special, it requires a lot from me if I am to do it without sight control. I am deeply concentrated, which is an ability built up over years. Demanding concentration is required especially for orientation, coordination and keeping balance. You can read the degree of focusing on my face.

Thank you for listening.


About the author

Pavla Kovaříková Valníčková (1972)

former member of the Czech national team for middle-distance running, cross-country skiing and swimming, competing in the category of totally blind women (B1).

1989 European Championship (Zurich, Switzerland)

Running: 800 m – gold medal

Swimming: 100 m (breast) – bronze medal

1990 World Championship (Assen, the Netherlands)

Running: 800, 1500 and 3000 m – gold medals

1992 Winter Paralympic Games (Albertville, France)

Cross-Country Skiing: 5 km – silver medal

15 km – bronze medal

1992 Summer Paralympic Games (Barcelona, Spain)

Running: 800 m – bronze medal

1500 m – gold medal

3000 m – gold medal plus new world record

Pavla was born with congenital glaucoma, a serious eye disease, and grew up as a legally blind child. At the age of 15 she became totally blind.

She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in English at Charles University in Prague in 1994 and a Master’s Degree in psychological counseling at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, USA, in 1997.

She has developed a unique technique of tactile drawing and painting, has illustrated eight books by now and is the author of the Firefly drawing which has been used in annual nationwide fundraising campaign held by the Foundation of the Czech Radio to help visually impaired people.

Pavla lives with her husband and two small children in the small town of Cesky Brod near Prague, she has been accompanied by Dora, her black lab guide dog.

Together with a couple of her colleagues she has started up an NGO called Rozhledna (the Czech word for a lookout) which focuses on themes related to blindness. Rozhledna provides counseling, runs courses aimed at feedback to nonverbal behavior of its blind participants, organizes fitness exercise classes for the visually impaired and also experience / educational programs for groups of sighted people of different professions or ages (school children, health professionals etc.). Furthermore, there is a lot of writing done in Rozhledna which addresses topics less frequently covered such as parenthood of the blind, the specific jargon of blind people, or individual concepts and self-perceptions of one’s disability, one’s sense of belonging to the disability community and one’s encounters with non-disabled society.

© Pavla Kovaříková, 2017

© Rozhledna, 2017