Too Blind to Be Sighted/Too Sighted to be Blind

Seeing Integrated Sport from a New Perspective

By Courtney

I made my first national team as a visually impaired athlete when I was sixteen and competed internationally for the next eighteen years in athletics and cross country skiing. For much of that time, I trained with other athletes who had disabilities and worked with coaches with expertise in disability sport. But after more than 18 years competing at an elite level, I’ve decided to participate in sport at a more recreational level, giving me an opportunity to try new sports. My first foray into “recreational” sport will be a team sport: rowing. Yup, I’m hoping to be one of eight athletes in a long skinny boat who row their guts out for 2km. It might be recreational but I still want to come in first!

Lucky for me, a friend of mine competed in rowing at the 2012 Paralympics and through her, I met Martin, Rowing BC’s provincial coach for adaptive rowing. Martin has given me a number of opportunities to try rowing, including liaising with the Vancouver Rowing Club so I could integrate into an able-bodied novice rowing program. Why an integrated program? Because there simply aren’t enough adaptive athletes for an adaptive-only program. Kudos to VRC for being willing to accept me as a member and to the coaches who have been great, but I sure am getting a crash course on why it is harder for adaptive athletes to find sport programs!

Rower tries to negotiate a corner with two oars.

Maneuvering 12′ oars takes a bit of practice.

Challenge #1: Getting to the boathouse. I have a rowing club located just 20 minutes away by bike. With the exception of just 2 blocks, I can bike the entire way in dedicated bike lanes or on urban trails so even though I am legally blind, I feel relatively safe using my bike. I love being able to do this because I get to decide when I come and go, which is a huge bonus for me! Because I can’t legally drive, my ability to get around is always dependent on someone else’s schedule — either that of another individual who is kind enough to give me a ride or that of a public transit system. When I have to rely on others for rides, I have to work off of their schedule. Don’t get me wrong — I am not complaining! I very much appreciate the rides! I get a warm, dry ride home and great people to socialize with but I can’t wait for the day I can jump into my own car, crank the tunes and go wherever, whenever I want.

Unfortunately, this conveniently located rowing club is not interested in integrating adaptive athletes. Even though I paid the full membership fee, I got a less than warm welcome. I now travel an hour and ten minutes each way to get to VRC where they are happy to have adaptive athletes join their programs. The upside is I have a program that is willing to help me out as needed, but the downside is I spend twice as much time travelling as I do training.

Challenge #2: Meeting people. I’m sure that sounds silly given rowing is a team sport — by definition, “team” would indicate a group of people. My problem is I can’t easily recognize faces so identifying my teammates is not easy. I’m quick to pick up on individuals who physically stand out, such as the 6’5” guy who towers over everyone, or who have unique characteristics, like the one with the German accent. But not everyone is quite so unique and eight weeks into the program, I still haven’t sorted out in my mind who’s who… especially the six men (at least I think there’s six) who all seem to be about the same height and shape with dark brown hair. Most people are now greeting each other with things like, “Hey Jeff, how was your weekend at Whistler?” and I’m still at “Do I know this guy?” I’m definitely at a disadvantage. I could be brave and take educated guess at who I’m standing next to and try to be friendly, but if I am wrong, I feel like I am only reinforcing the stereotype that people who are visually impaired are no the sharpest pencils in the box. By not taking a shot at it, I am likely coming across as cold and impersonal. So teammate identification is still a work in progress….

Two boats of novices rowers struggle to match strokes with their teammates.

Novice rowers quickly find out rowing in synch isn’t as easy as it looks on TV.

When I first met the team, I was up front about my vision and stated that I would likely make mistakes when trying to identify everyone. Everyone seemed to be understanding, but now that there are still six guys that I don’t know, I’m wondering what I could have done differently to make it easier. Should I be going to workouts with a white cane? That would remind everyone why I am not the most graceful (read: clumsy) person around the boathouse. It would also mean I have a white cane in my hands, making it harder to move oars and boats. Plus, it would make me feel like a hypocrite — I don’t typically use a white cane in my daily life except for crossing busy streets without stoplights so why would I emphasize it at workouts? Having said that, maybe my teammates already think I’m a hypocrite in that I say I am legally blind, but manage without a white cane or guide dog. It sometimes feels that sighted people think there are only two levels of sight in the world — blind and fully sighted — and if you happen to fall somewhere in the middle, well that just confuses everyone….

Challenge #3: Trying to not stand out. I’ve had a couple of people ask about my vision and I am happy to answer questions. However, most of them start with, “So how much vision do you have? 75-80%?” When I tell them no, I have less than 10%, they often say, “Wow, you sure don’t look like it!”. In one way, it is a compliment in that I am exceeding their expectations of what people who are legally blind are capable of. In another, it is frustrating. They have no idea that while it may look like I am simply grabbing an oar and walking it out to the boat, every move I make is a calculated one. It all starts when I arrive at the boathouse and take a casual (or at least I hope it looks casual!) walk around listening to voices to find my group. Once we get the go-ahead to get our gear, I make sure I am never the first one to the oar racks to avoid the embarrassing situation of me whacking the surrounding boats like piñatas as I try to get the oars out.

From listening to people putting the oars away after we row, I know they are put away in  pairs — one port and one starboard — so I make it my mission to grab an oar right after someone makes a comment like “Okay, this makes four port oars so all we need now are two more starboard oars.” working off the assumption that whomever is handing out the oars will logically hand out a starboard oar next. I have to be fast though so I can follow the person who got an oar just before I did out to where we will launch our boat from. While I am training, anywhere from three to six boats can be launched and not all of them are part of the novice program. I would be so embarrassed to find out I had put my oar in the wrong spot and another team had counted it as theirs, leaving my team short an oar and everyone knowing it was me who goofed. Way to go, blind girl.

As I walk my oar out, I focus on not hitting anyone on my way — to date, I’ve only had three near-misses! I also know that right where the white railings start, I need to take a wider step to avoid tripping over a soft piece of rubber — I almost bailed twice on it my first day there. Once I get to where we’ll launch from, I try to put my oar somewhere I can easily find it when we come back down because I am still struggling to find a quick way to identify starboard oars from port oars. Apparently there are marks on them, but I can’t see them easily.

Once my oar is out on the dock, I go back to find my team and bring out our boat. Again, I have to be quick so I don’t end up at either end of the boat —I don’t want to be the one leading the parade. I also have to cross my fingers that everyone around me is watching that the riggers on the boat don’t hit something or someone as we move around. Once my hands are on the boat, I just follow along and can finally take a short sigh of relief. That is, until we get the boat in the water and I have to go back and get my oar (hopefully no one has taken it!) to put in the boat. Once I get seated, I have to adjust my shoes, which I now do by feeling the number of grooves to make sure they are in the right spot. The first day out, I didn’t think to do this and ended up pulling the shoes right off the tracks. Luckily, Martin was there and quickly came over to fix the problem. I was so thankful because if it had been up to me to sort out, we likely would still be sitting at the dock….

Once we launch, things get a little easier. Rowing is a very repetitive sport and when things are going well, there is a predictable rhythm to follow. But this is a novice program and all of us are still working on technique so being consistent is not our strong suit just yet. I do my best to stay in sync as I can see the blade of the oar of the person two seats up and key off of that for timing. I can’t, however, see the fine details of things they are doing, which often leaves me playing catch up. I also don’t get the benefit of watching other rowers go by while listening to coaches’ comments about the good, the bad and the ugly. I know this will get easier as I improve and that I likely will take longer to learn the techniques because I don’t get to see as much as my teammates do, but it’s a struggle at first. I’d love to be able to blindfold my teammates (though I realize this is an exaggeration of my lack of vision) and say “There, NOW what do you think?”

Challenge #4: Proving adaptive athletes are capable athletes. I think it’s human nature to want to feel you belong and are accepted in whatever group you are in — be it at work or play. When I trained with other people who had disabilities, I felt accepted for just being me with nothing to prove. Out in the wide, wide world of able-bodied sport, however, I feel I am constantly fighting the shadows of disability stereotypes. More than once I have experienced or witnessed an able-bodied person talking or acting in a way that suggests they assume that a physical or sensory disability must also mean a lack of intelligence – after winning a silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games, I had one woman congratulate me and then say, “It’s so nice you’re doing something with your life.” Uh, thanks?

A few comments made by my rowing teammates have also led to me believe they don’t think I am as capable as they are. I know my inability to recognize everyone on sight, my strategies for moving around the boathouse and my being slower to learn proper technique is all working against me in the sense of being “normal” in the sighted world.

However, this experience has also brought to my attention how adaptive athletes new to sport might feel being integrated into able-bodied program. I am fortunate enough to have a background in sport so I have an idea of what my body can handle, which has helped me succeed. Our team’s recent 20-minute erg test is a perfect example. I can’t read the monitors on the ergs (those rowing machines you see in gyms) so at all the workouts before the time trial, I just rowed in time with the team. I had no clue what my stroke rate or split time was — I figured I was working hard enough if I was keeping up with everyone else.

Then on time trial day, the coach said, “Pick a 500m split time that would be average for you over the last few workouts and try to stick with that.” Uh, hello? That strategy would work if I had any idea what my average had been. Given I had nothing to go on, all I could do was pick a pace I felt I could hold for 20 minutes. Someone who had a physical or sensory disability and had little to no background in being physically active would not have had this experience to draw on — what then?

Image of six rowers competing on rowing machines.

Next up for Courtney is the annual Beat the Best – an indoor ‘regatta’ on ergs where she will compete against a whole flight of able-bodied novice rowers.

As the time trial started, the coach, remembering I couldn’t read the monitor, loudly started calling out my splits. Though I really appreciated the feedback, all I could think of was “Ack! Now everyone know’s my split! Oh, please let it be good, please, please let it be good!” Talk about pressure not to crash and burn! I did survive. When it was over, I could see all my teammates casually peeking at their neighbour’s scores. Me? I can’t do that subtly — my nose pressed to their monitor would be a dead giveaway.

Despite all of this, my score ended up being better than those of all the girls — and two of the guys as well! My performance relieved some of the pressure I have been feeling to prove that athletes with disabilities are capable of integrating into able-bodied programs and to earn the respect of my teammates for my rowing abilities.

I look forward to working within a team concept and though I know it won’t be smooth sailing all the time, I also look forward to meeting the challenge of becoming a more proficient rower. Oh, and kicking a little bit of able-bodied athlete butt along the way!

(photos courtesy Alex Leask – to see more of her photos visit UBC Rowing on Facebook)

12 thoughts on “Too Blind to Be Sighted/Too Sighted to be Blind

  1. Courtney, this post could have been written by my best friend. She’s not an athlete, but she’s got a visual impairment she’s lived with since she was 15. Her vision is changeable-sometimes she is legally blind and sometimes she has low vision. People don’t understand that concept either. She has a white cane, but she doesn’t use it because it alerts others to the fact that she can’t see and it makes her feel vulnerable. She is extremely independent and capable, so most of the time no one can tell she has a disability.

    Just reading how you are working to adapt when you are at the rowing club is mentally exhausting. I think when you have to work around challenges it forces you to become amazingly creative. If the people around you were more aware, they would clearly recognize there’s nothing lacking about you-you’re working 10 times harder to be able to do the same thing they are and having to figure out how to make it work for you as you go.

    I can’t wait to hear that you have indeed kicked some able-bodied butt! I’m rooting for you!

  2. Excellent article Courtney! I found it very educational. Being blind is not as obvious a dissability as some others and that in itself presents hurdles. You are very good at hiding your visual imparement to the point that most people, including myself, just forget that you can not see very well at all. I understand your not wanting to stand out but sometimes maybe it is a good thing to let people know that you are having difficulties. I think that most people are willing to help and will not look at you as any less competant. In fact, as you have mentioned, you may be appearing less competant because those around you are not understanding why you do things the way you do or why you may not catch on as quick. It is not stupidity. It is just the dissadavantage of not being able to learn by watching as the rest are able to do.

    Anyways, I have been enlightened by reading your aticle.

  3. Good article Courtney. When I first had my brain injury I preferred the adapted sports programs because I did not have to explain to people all the time what my limitations were. Like you Courtney, a lot of my difficulties are more invisible to the general public and I don’t like to be always telling people well I have a brain injury. People tell me “Wow I would not have known if you didnt tell me” I say stick around you will see how I get lost, forget, forget,forget things. People say to me “Yeah I forget things all the time like that” They are trying to relate but they have no idea what goes into trying to manoeuvre in an able bodied/able minded world. When I come out with some left field comment people just look……… at me. No I am not weird just on a different plain than most. Ok maybe weird too! I guess what i am saying is that for people with Visual Impairment, physical or neurological , we all have to negotiate a world that is not set up for us. I think you do a good job Courtney, I think I do a good job too! That success is a blessing and a curse sometimes. When in a group that does not mean much or I won’t be returning to I would not bother with any explanation. If i were in a group like your rowing group, perhaps letting people know you don’t need to be coddled but some direction would be appreciated. I think of you and I Courtney, in that airport in Germany. I did not have a clue where to go, you could not read the signs, so I read the signs to you and you told me where to go….. so to speak. We made a great team because we worked with each others strengths to accomplish a common goal. I would bet one of those eight may be more reserved or shy and having a role of only directing in difficult situations may help them come out of their shell. You never know who is in your same “boat” until you ask.
    Great article Courtney got me thinking.

  4. Great article, and eye opening for Rowing Clubs who haven’t yet integrated able bodied and adaptive/para rowers into all their programs. I think clubs and their respective club members will always have questions for athletes with disabilities, but sharing your story moves the whole sport forward. Vancouver Rowing Club sounds like a model, and is lucky to have you in their program, Courtney. Thanks for writing.

  5. Great article Courtney, thanks for putting all this down for us to read. A really great insight (if you will pardon the pun) into how sport works (and sometimes doesn’t) for someone with a visual impairment.
    I really like the way you have split the article into parts that you bring into focus. These I hope provide some take-away points for Rowing Clubs, coaches and members who may be looking for information about including para rowers in their programming. Very pleased to see that despite the hiccups, you are looking forward to improving your skills, and kicking some butt. I look forward to a follow-up piece in the future. Hopefully you will be able to share how some of the issues you raised were resolved!

    • Hey Martin, don’t worry, I’ll solve them! It’s definitely been a bit of a learning curve in that I am new to rowing and aren’t familiar with the novice program so I am still working out what I need to help simplify things and the coaches are new to working with someone who is visually impaired so everyone is learning together. The Vancouver Rowing Club coaches and club president have been incredibly helpful whenever I have asked for help, which is why I am enjoying this experience.

      I initially decided to write on this topic because my previous posts have focused on more global issues so I thought I would try writing from a more personal perspective and doing so has actually made me stop and think more about what changes I need to ask for. It sounds stupid, but writing this blog post has made me realize I need to be more vocal about what I need and stop worrying so much about doing it the same way as everyone else, especially since my past experiences have been that if it makes something easier for me, it often also makes it easier for everyone else.

      I am very fortunate that there are people like you lobbying on behalf of adaptive athletes to have us integrated into existing programs because if integration wasn’t possible, the opportunities for adaptive athletes to row would be incredibly small. I am also fortunate that the Vancouver Rowing Club has been willing to be a leader in integrating adaptive athletes into their programming because, as I stated in my post, not everyone is as open-minded.Their openness to including me and other adaptive athletes in their programming is going to have a positive impact not just on the sport of rowing, but on awareness of the unique needs of people with disabilities in general and that is a move in the right direction.

  6. My name is Willie Scales. I am part of the Adaptive Rowing Team (VIPER) at Halifax Rowing in Daytona Beach. I am legally blind. I started rowing in Sept. I enjoyed it very much. I like my teammates and the coaches. And these are the adjustments that I have made. I have a i phone 4s. I use a wahoo key for the i phone with the mp4 rowing machine. It tells me my strokes, how many meters, my timing, and it also compares myself to what other people are doing.

    • Hi Wille, I discovered the same Wahoo key and so it, my PM4 and my iPad all now travel with me to workout so I can get the information I need off my iPad, giving me more control over my workouts. I’m gradually getting better at recognizing my teammates and coaches, and, like you, am enjoying working with all of them.

  7. Hay Courtney—– My sister was pronounced legally blind —- well I’m sure thats how she felt first loosing her vision….. she’s somewhere around a 10%er to….. Yes as a long term Para myself It may seem to others & ourselves at times that we are burden or some how our live are less than exceptional.

    As you know its all those simple everyday things that challenge us—- Make us problem solvers & over achievers…. though as I’m sure you know once we get through that self doubt stage & learn that we have skills and inner strength to accomplish what ever challenge we truly desire.

    These are skills a majority of the population will never have….. and if we have the opportunity to excel~ we can exceed our able bodied counterparts…. and in fact I believe that you will become your boats anchor & in time they will be looking to you for strength.

    I love being part of the Para Nordic & Kayak program ~ though I do also love being the only para athlete at the Kayak Club….. Which is A OK with me….. Life is like a Box of Chocolates

    • Thanks Kevin! I think the concept of being a “burden” on others is key – that is exactly how I DO NOT want to be perceived and a big part of that is being in an environment where others are open to the idea that we might not do things the same way as others. I always find moving into a group where no one knows me the most challenging because I feel pressure to prove I won’t be a burden. As I’ve mentioned before, I am so, so, so fortunate to have had the support of the Vancouver Rowing Club and its coaches right from the get-go. Because of them, I am definitely enjoying learning new skills, meeting new people and look forward to competing as a member of a crew. This up-front support is not always there as some able-bodied programs are just not as receptive to integrating athletes with disabilities into their programming and they do make you feel as though you are slowing them down. Lucky for me, though the first club wasn’t so receptive, the Vancouver Rowing Club has been the exact opposite.

  8. It has been brought to my attention that a number of individuals have interpreted this post to indicate I am unhappy as visually impaired athlete that has been integrated into an able-bodied novice rowing program. I would like to state that this is unequivocally NOT true – quite the opposite in fact. That some individuals are interpreting my comments as being negative is extremely unfortunate. It has been my experience that no matter what aspect of life I am involved in, be it school, work or sport, there are many, many people who have no understanding of vision loss. I was hoping this post would help raise awareness about how individuals with vision loss can feel in new environments surrounded by individuals who don’t have an understanding of vision loss. I also wanted readers to be more aware of how they can change their own behaviour or influence change in their environments to help make the world more accessible.

    I am thankful every time I go to rowing practice that I am a member of a club that has had the foresight to be fully inclusive, to have capable coaches that are more than willing to work with me (and do an incredibly fine job of it!) and to have teammates that, as they get to know me better, are stepping up to accept me as an equal team member and help me out as needed, even if I do almost whack them with an oar occasionally. There is no blame to be laid, no failing grades to be given in situations like the ones I describe in my post – only a willingness to learn from what is past and a commitment to making it better in the future. I am here to state for the record I am having a GREAT experience with the Vancouver Rowing Club because this club is fully committed to learning from the past and making things better in the future for everyone. So if you in fact saw this post as coming from somewhere negative, I would encourage you to read it again because you obviously missed the point.

  9. UPDATE: I did it! I beat the beast! Finished third in my age class with a 3-second PB of 7:59.03! My participation was well received by the organizing committee who was very willing to accommodate my using an iPad so I could see my strokes per minute, 500m average split time, elapsed time, etc. The only speed bump was that I need my iPad to wirelessly connect to the rower’s monitor in order to display information from the rower in large print and unfortunately the software used for the competition would not allow my iPad to connect. Fortunately though, Andrea had already agreed to be available to help (that was Plan B from the start because you never know….) so instead of reading my iPad, I listened to her. Because we have competed together so often, she knew exactly how to “guide” me through the race. Without her, I’m pretty sure I would not have broken the 8-minute mark. I had such a good time!

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