Blindness and the visually challenged.

Robert Barton 

We in Shorin Goju have a long history of accepting students with which some other martial arts instructors will not work. It is a tradition of which we are proud and one which requires that our instructors attain high levels of teaching ability. One area where we can as instructors be challenged to teach in is the area of the visually challenged student or a student with blindness. In this essay I’m going to help the newer or less experienced instructor with some training in how to manage the school or class which serves students with these challenges.

We must first understand blindness, legal blindness and visual challenges. We often here blindness and we think of the people who have a profound blindness with no sight at all. This may not be the case and some students may present with a profound loss of vision with no sight while others may have some ability to see light and shadow while another student may require very strong glasses or contacts. Another possibility is the student who has one eye and functions without the depth perception of a person with two working eyes. We must never assume that when we hear “blindness” or “visually challenged” we are automatically dealing with a person who has profound blindness. The best approach in this situation is to simply ask to what extent the visual challenge exists and make sure that all members of the teaching staff are aware.

The next step is preparation which means that we should look at our schools and training spaces to see how friendly those spaces are to the visually challenged. We ask ourselves well in advance how we would deal with a new student who has blindness or a significant visual issue. We must also assess how prepared our space is for these students and not make a list of things to do when we have this student walk. The list of accommodations should be put in place first so that rather than have the needs of these students suddenly require changes to accommodate, the student walks into an environment that is already prepared. We should also prepare ourselves and our teaching staff well in advance.

A large portion of our preparation as instructors has to do with how we will communicate relative to the issue. Remember that a challenge or a handicap is never about identity so we never have blind students we have student with blindness or with visual challenges. We never identify the person with the challenge. We will never say “this is Jill and she is blind” we will also never say “this is our blind student Tommy” what we will say is “this is Jill” and if the subject is significant to the conversation we would say “this is Jill and she has blindness” or “I would like for you to meet our new student Tommy, and when you are teaching his lessons you need to know that he has visual challenges”.  If you want to advertise that you can handle these students make sure the advertisement doesn’t say blind students and instead says students with visual challenges and blindness. The next level of communication has to do with touching, remember that a person should not be touched without permission and we cannot just walk up and grab a student and move him or her around without warning. Often people have pulled or pushed these students in an effort to help them and this often happens without warning and can be annoying. If you wish to guide a student you should ask him or her and then allow the student to take your arm or rest a hand on your shoulder. As you guide the student you tell him or her quietly where he or she may need to step up or down or over something. When possible we should make an effort to reduce the need for physically guiding and tell the student to turn left or right or when to walk forward or when to stop. As with any student grabbing him or her physically without warning should only be done when there is a sudden safety issue.

Communication when teaching a technique to a visually challenged student will need certain modifications in that we often convey a great deal of information visually. What is conveyed visually will have to now be communicated in other ways. The first modification is that we will need to be more explicit in our explanations verbally describing each technique in detail. The next area where we will need to increase our communication skills will be in the area of touch. These two areas have to increase to the point that they perform the usual job performed by vision.

In the field of touch we have two interlocking approaches to helping a student understand a new technique and perform that skill.  The first step is modeling in which we allow the student to use his or her sense of touch in order to understand how the technique is done.  The basic approach to modeling is to allow the student to touch the instructor or another assistant at each stage of the technique in order to allow the student to build a mental model of the movements. This is best accomplished through a stage by stage approach that incorporates the point by point method and the motion modeling method. The technique is broken down stage by stage and each stage is learned and then the next stage is addressed. Rather than have the student feel every position in the whole technique from the start to finish, each stage is modeled for the student and then the stage is learned and once the student can perform that stage then the next stage is modeled.

The point by point approach involves the student touching the points of the body of the model. The primary points of movement are the joints and so the student is allowed to feel the positions of the joints, both shoulders and hips should always be felt as they are generally considered a single point. The head and spinal column are each treated as a point. In order to teach a student a punch one would have the student feel the instructor in the starting position and then the student would copy that position with the instructor then adjust the student point by point by physically guiding each joint into position, make sure that the student is ok with have his or her joints guided in this way and always tell the student where he or she is about to be touched. Once that stage is learned the student will learn the extended position for the punch in the same way. Once these two stages are learned in the point by point method the instructor incorporates motion modeling in order to connect the two stages. In motion modeling the movement is performed slowly while the student lightly holds on to the primary joints being moved. Once the student has done this several times with each joint used in the movement the student then begins to perform the movement slowly with the instructor physically guiding as needed and always telling the student when and where the touch will be felt.

This approach is as first a bit slow but as the instructor grows accustomed to it the instructor becomes better at it. The wonderful this is that as the student does this method he or she becomes better and better at it and will eventually require very little guiding so long as the technique is modeled point by point. An additional approach to this method is with a series of the small artists models made of wood and shaped like a human with articulated joints. The instructor arranges the models into the positions of the various stages and the student can then study the models point by point. This technique can actually be incorporated into a class with sighted and visually challenged student. The models are arranged and the sighted students can see the models while the visually challenged students can walk up and feel them. In this way the students with visual challenges feel less different and the appearance is of a teaching method that is used for everyone rather than special and reserved for some who are different. (Do not be surprised if some sighted students like to also touch the point by point models, even many of the sighted are not visual learners and this method can help more tactile learners even when they have sight.)

Another area where we can be prepared is to prepare the space to be friendlier to students with visual challenges. This preparation is best done in advance so that you as the instructor know that everything is in place when and if you accept a student with visual challenges. By having these things in advance you will minimize the perception of students that things had to be changed in order to accommodate the new student and you will minimize the perception of that student being different. This will also minimize the feelings of difference in the student with the challenge.

Navigating a training space can be difficult and a lot can be done with sound to make this easier for the student. A few items in the room which have particular sounds and which are always in the same place can be a great help in this. A clock should tick.  A small desktop fountain in the observation area gives a constant auditory reference. Just these two things in a dojo can help a student orient through hearing. Tiny wind chimes outside of the front door can help students find the entrance with greater ease. A small speaker with a low volume giving background music that is so quiet that it is not noticed by most students can help.

Another issue is obstacles which can trip a student. If there are chairs in the waiting area the student needs to know and they should not be moved without the student being told. The same goes for desks or any other furniture. It is best to have a set of cubby holes or low shelves for shoes and to never allow these to be left on the floor along with a medium height shelf for gym bags so that the floor remains clear and uncluttered. Training equipment should have hangers on the wall for training weapons, focus gloves and kicking shields and these should never be left on the floor. As much of the floor space as possible should be clear with any furniture in designated areas. Do not wait until you have a visually challenged student to institute a clear floor policy in your school because even a sighted student can trip over a kicking shield left lying about. Each member of the teaching staff should enforce the clear floor policy with equipment, shoes and bags all in their place if not being used at that moment and jackets left hanging on hooks.

Next we need to make sure that we introduce the student to the space by guiding him or her through it or letting the student walk around and explore it while it is almost empty. I have always preferred to use both methods and I first allow the student to explore while I do whatever paperwork I need to do and I will occasionally call out to the new person what the different areas are or are used for as he or she enters them. Then I have the new student stand in the middle of the room and I explain what is where. Like this “That clock behind you never moves and always ticks that loudly. The larger fountain that you hear on your right to the rear is in the corner of the observation area by the door that you came in through and there are a few chairs there to the left of the door. That front door has a bell so it will always jingle when opened and I’m sure that you noticed the Chinese wind chimes outside. If you are ever trying to find the back door it has a different set of bamboo wind chimes. That smaller fountain to your left is against the wall in the middle and between the restrooms boys on the left, girls on the right. There is a punching bag in the back left corner with equipment kept hanging up on the back wall and equipment is never left on the floor. Shoes always go on the shelves near the front right corner and are never left on the floor and if you have a gym bag it goes on the top shelf about waist high over the shoes. When you come through the door there are a couple of student desks on your left just like they have in school, this is where students with grade problems sit to do homework during class time if they need to. There is one support column in the room and it has a speaker attached to the top of it and that is the quiet background noise that you hear going right now and that should always be on.” Once this introduction is finished the student should be allowed to wander around the room to get to know it and become familiar with the different floor surfaces and where they change etc.

During class we have to make sure that we speak clearly and articulate all aspects of training very well. We also need to make sure that we have students maintain a safe spacing at all times and this habit should be in place from day one and not suddenly in place the first lesson with a child with blindness when we realize that sighted children can be closer to one another in practice than can non-sighted children. If we make a sudden change in spacing it emphasizes the difference of the new student and makes the new student feel that he or she has cause a drastic change in the status quo.

If you have a school for the blind or any local associations or organizations oriented toward working with those who have visual challenges you have a great resource available to you. They are often willing to help by typing written material into Braille for you. If they know that you are willing to work with students with visual challenges you may find that these organizations will refer students to you or may even provide a space and time within their organization for you to teach a class for these students.

What we as martial arts instructors can provide for these students is very different from their normal educational settings. Many people with visual challenges have fewer opportunities to get healthy exercise and are often denied to benefits associated with it. We can also provide them with an ability to better protect themselves and an increase in confidence. Lets face it, a person who is visually challenged is more susceptible to rape and assault in our society and we can help these alarming statistics. When a student who has a visual challenge can actually compete in and even such as forms and maybe even wins as trophy that person will carry that victory life long.

As instructors we in Shorin Goju have always challenged ourselves and one another to be better and to constantly improve our art as fighters and as teachers. This constant desire to be get better has placed us in the position of producing some of the best instructors in the martial arts world. I hope that you as an instructor will take up the challenge of learning to work with visually challenged students and so improve yourself. If you are willing to take up this challenge I urge you to learn the art and training methods described in the appendix to this essay.



The art of spatial hearing.


There is in the history of the fencers of France a famous fencer well known for several things. He was a very good teacher of the sword even into his old age and well after his vision failed him and he taught by sound alone. When sailors would be near shore in a heavy fog they would ‘bark’ or produce a loud sharp quick yell in order to hear where the shore or rocks or even other ships were located. There are also mentions in the history of the Shaolin Temple and related martial arts of masters who lost their vision and yet continued to teach and seemed to be able to navigate rooms and streets as though they were still sighted.  There existed at one time an art within Shaolin or more a series of training methods to help visually impaired monks compensate. It is unfortunately a series of exercises and practices almost lost to our world today and as far as I have been able to research it either never really had a name or that name is lost or it could be that I have yet to run across it for sure in my studies. But the training methods are there, scattered through various places.

As the description of bat like navigation indicates it is based on very highly refined hearing applied to spatial recognition. And works based on listening to the ‘shape’ of sound as it moves and echoes. The sound sources are both the standard background environmental noise and sounds produced specifically for this purpose. The most well know sound produced for this purpose was the tapping of a stick, a stick that often served as a defensive weapon. The tapping doesn’t seem out of place for the non-sighted person. There was also speaking, clapping, snapping, noisy footfalls and clicking the tongue. All of these combined to inform the listener through reverberation and subtle echoes where walls stones and objects were located.

The first awareness that is required for this bat like navigation is to listen to environmental sounds. This is something that most non-sighted people have already become very good with. They know where ac hum is in the room from computers or refrigerators, they hear feet etc. If you are a sighted person who wishes to learn this skill it is done simply by closing your eyes and listening to the sounds of the world around you and really getting into what those sounds are telling you.

The second awareness has to do with listening to how sound is changed and reflected by walls etc. To start the student with this skill one first stands him or her in a doorway between two rooms that are of different sizes and/or different ceiling heights. Then the student is taken to different locations indoors and outdoors and the student is allowed to listen and should have the area described to him or her and gradually the student should be asked to start describing the new places based on what he or she is hearing. Maintain some periods of light conversation interspersed with verbal silence during this training.

The next level of training is that of intentionally producing a sound to listen to the reverberations and echoes. Short, quick, staccato sounds work best but the voice can be used as can short whistles. For large distances whistles, yells and claps work well while quieter clicks work for indoors, shorter distances and hearing the location of objects like parked cars.

The first step here is to take the student to a large outdoor place between buildings etc. I personally start a student with this stage in a baseball or football field where he or she can clearly hear different echoes from dugouts scoreboards and stands. These objects are large and start off far enough away to give easily heard echoes. At this point the student uses claps, yells and whistles to produce sounds to listen for. Gradually we move the student around the field and have the student start using finger snaps to listen for things that are closer.

Our next stage involves teaching the student to navigate parking lots, parks and other outdoor locations with smaller and more randomized objects. At this stage the student is using snaps and tongue clicks to produce smaller sounds. The student should describe the direction and distance of objects telling the instructor where he or she is hearing objects as being located. As the student develops these skills we introduce the tapping of the stick to produce these sharp sounds to give the echoes.

Finally the student starts to navigate indoors initially going through large relatively quiet rooms and the gradually smaller rooms and increasingly noisy rooms. At this point we start to focus heavily of tongue clicks for smaller closer objects. Have the student sit with his or her hand in front of the face and eyes closed if sighted. As the student clicks his or her tongue he or she moves the hand back and forth from left to right around the head and listens to the sound. Gradually the instructor introduces his or her own hand into the exercise by slowly moving it into a position within reach of the student and having the student locate it through the use of clicks until he or she can reach out and touch it. Eventually the student should toss little rolled up paper balls at the hand that has been moved and then on to locating objects in the room through clicks.

I have had some interesting success with this type of teaching. I have seen one teacher who is not a martial arts instructor and who is able to teach unsighted children to safely ride a bike on a parking lot and avoid obstacles. This takes time but when you help a person with visual challenges to better be able to move around in his or her environment you will have given someone a wonderful gift. 

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