The United States Association of Blind Athletes Impacts Lives through Sports and Recreation

by Lacey Markle

There are an estimated 52,000 school-aged children who are blind and visually impaired in the United States; nearly 70 percent do not participate in even a limited physical education curriculum. The barriers that blind and visually impaired youth face are numerous and primarily the consequences of moving their education from residential schools, where physical educators with blindness knowledge deliver specialized services in relatively small classes, to public schools where educators may have less knowledge, time and resources to apply to students who are visually impaired.

In 1976, the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) was founded 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 of all ages and abilities that are blind and visually impaired. A member of the U.S. 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, without unnecessary restrictions. 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.

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  which is more than double the national average of 23 percent for their visually impaired peers.

Helping to increase the involvement in physical activity as well as higher education, 18 agencies assisting youth who are blind and visually impaired are working towards a healthier lifestyle with the start of the National Fitness Challenge created by the United States Association of Blind Athletes and funded by the WellPoint Foundation.

“Each participating agency submits baseline data and monthly updates that are used to create and modify achievable fitness and weight loss goals for the teens to help them decrease their Body Mass Index,” said Mark Lucas, executive director of the United States Association of Blind Athletes.

USABA and the WellPoint Foundation are actively working towards a healthier lifestyle by providing talking pedometers as well as fitness and nutrition coaches for each agency. Each athlete has the opportunity to be the top boy and girl from their agency and participate in the final National Fitness Challenge, a four-day camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where they 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.

Mark Lucas explained, “Our goal for the National Fitness Challenge is 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 competitions.”

Each of the 18 agencies has a special sport they are practicing in order to become more physically fit while having fun. For example, some are playing goalball while others have a running league, swim team, ski team or tandem cycling.

“The WellPoint Foundation is committed to helping children and adults have active lives and avoid the health risks associated with sedentary lifestyles and obesity,” said Mike Walsh, president and general manager of WellPoint’s Specialty Business, which includes dental, vision, workers’ compensation, voluntary, life and disability benefits. “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.”

The WellPoint Foundation is the philanthropic arm of WellPoint, Inc., and through charitable contributions and programs, the Foundation promotes the inherent commitment of WellPoint, Inc. to enhance the health and well-being of individuals and families.

These 700 teens are taking the leaps and bounds to break stereotypes and become more physically fit by showing how active people with disabilities can be, while enjoying themselves.

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 (BMI). Not only will these teens lower their BMI, but through participation in sports and physical activity, these teens will realize new levels of independence, confidence and determination.

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 is particularly important that USABA provides opportunities to returning wounded warriors.

USABA began Operation Mission Vision in the summer of 2008. The goal of Operation Mission Vision is simply 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.

Lonnie Bedwell, 46 year old, Navy veteran lost his sight 15 years ago, and has been a member of USABA for many years. He has said many times, “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,” he continues to say. “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 they 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,” Bedwell said.

Participation in physical activity is often the most critical mental and physical aspect of the rehabilitation process for both the injured person and that individual’s 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.

In order to specially help veterans, goalball was developed after WWII to keep veterans who lost their sight during the war physically active. Goalball is a unique ball game played by people who are blind and visually impaired, but many sighted people also play on local teams for fun. Goalball has become a premier team game and is a part of the Summer Paralympic Games. It is played in 112 countries in all International Blind Sport Association (IBSA) regions. In partnership with the U.S. Paralympics, a division of the United States Olympic Committee, USABA manages the sport of goalball from the grassroots to the elite level.

Goalball is played with bells inside of it so the players can locate it audibly. For this reason, silence at events is vital. It is played on a court with tactile markings so players can determine their location on the court and the direction that he/she is facing. All players wear eye masks to block out light and thus equalize visual impairment between the athletes.

USABA’s goalball season is starting soon and goalball teams around the national will play in tournaments with the hopes of becoming national champions. For more information on the goalball schedule go to http://www.usaba.org.

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. For more information on USABA sports programs go to http://www.usaba.org or visit their Facebook page.

Sports and physical activity is the gift that keeps on giving, the benefits can be reaped through childhood until adulthood. Regular exercise can help protect us all from heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, noninsulin-dependent diabetes, obesity, back pain, osteoporosis, and can improve our mood and help to 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 recognized as an easy access portal for any information and events for all blind and visually impaired people who seek participation in sports and physical activity. Parents, teachers, community program leaders, coaches, volunteers and people who are blind and visually impaired can easily 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.

For more information in becoming involved or for general information contact Lacey Markle at the United States Association of Blind Athletes at 719-866-3222 or military_pgm_asst@usaba.org, or go to USABA’s website at http://www.usaba.org.

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