On Your Mark, Get Set, Go! How Do You Keep Your Blind/VI Child Active & Safe?

by Kim Owens & Hilda Dunford (@OurBlindSide)

Many parents of children who are visually impaired or blind find it difficult to keep their children engaged in physical activities and sports. Hilda and I are often asked: How do you keep your child active and safe?

Hilda & Ashton:
Ashton is eight years old and he was born blind. He has a condition called Septo Optic Dysplasia and it means the Optic nerve did not fully develop before he was born. Ashton has always been very cautious, his vision is much better in the left eye and he is very good at tilting his head and finding the little vision he has. He picks up things and brings them very close to his eyes so he can see them better. He has learned how to read large contrasting print, but Braille seems to be a lot easier and he is getting much better at writing and reading with his fingers.

Ashton tried tumbling when he was 3 and it was very hard for him. He didn’t quite understand how to hold on to the beam or balance on it. He was nervous to jump on trampolines and do any kind of flips. We stopped the tumbling lessons after a couple months. He wasn’t very interested in sports after that experience. We tried football and soccer teams but it was too fast and chaotic for Ash. He did not like not knowing where the ball was and he said no one ever passed him the ball when he said he was open. It was hard as his mom to see how much other boys his age enjoyed sports and he was so afraid of them.

Luckily, through an amazing organization called The National Ability Center (NAC), we heard of an Adaptive Family Ski Camp. I asked him if he wanted to try skiing and explained to him it wasn’t a team sport and no one would be running around or kicking balls around him or throwing anything at him. He agreed to try it, we signed up and as a family went to Park City and participated in this camp. They had an adaptive ski instructor just for Ashton. She taught him how to get his skis on and she used a bamboo pole and explained to him how to stand up with the skis and hold on to the bamboo pole as they ski down the mountain. I remember the very first time I saw him skiing down the mountain, I cried, my son who I thought would never be able to enjoy sports had found a sport he loved. He waved at me and yelled, “Hi Mom!” After seeing this, our entire family decided we needed to learn how to ski because this is Ashton’s favorite sport. We have all taken lessons from The NAC and have all learned how to Ski with Ashton. I’ve also learned we don’t need a bamboo pole, we could use a hula hoop or even his cane for him to hold onto. There are many ways we can help him to ski and to enjoy adaptive sports.

Ashton and his guide getting ready to ski down the mountain.

The summer after the ski camp, we signed up for a Family Summer Camp by a reservoir. We slept in a yurt and also had the NAC instructors. They helped Ashton learn to use a paddleboard. He isn’t able to stand on the paddleboard but he enjoys sitting on it and holding the paddles. He loves just feeling the breeze and the freedom of floating in the reservoir in the middle of the mountains. I love that these experiences are teaching my son that he can do things. He can try all kinds of sports and he can enjoy them even if he has very little vision. The NAC has changed our lives and it has made such a difference in Ashton’s life.

Ashton and his ski guide heading down the mountain. They are wearing bright orange vests. One reads Guide, the other says Visually Impaired.
Ashton and his ski guide heading down the mountain. They are wearing bright orange vests.

Children who are blind need to be given the same experiences and chances as children who are sighted. It is the only way we can teach them that they can do these things. I would’ve never known that Ashton could ski if I had never given him the chance to try. Skiing is now something we do as a family every year. Ashton has grown so much from the first time he skied when he was 5 until now. I can’t wait to see how many more mountains he will climb or shred down as he gets older.

Kim & Kai: 
Kai is 17 and began to unexpectedly lose his sight at the age of 10. He currently has less than 10 degrees of blurry vision. His sight is not very functional, but he has light perception and is able to spot high contrasts. He is a braille reader and walks with a white mobility cane.

He has always loved board sports. When he was 5 he was the first kid to drop in on the big skate ramp with his teenage brother and friends cheering him on. His antics earned him the nickname “no fear Kai.” As a young child, he played peewee basketball and loved to do “hardcore parkour” at our local park and gym. Oh, he loved his bike too, he would spend hours circling our neighborhood with friends. So, when vision loss struck we were all shocked. We had no experience with sight loss and therefore no network or experience to draw upon. At the beginning that was a scary, lonely space, but I see now that because we didn’t have anyone telling us “no” we simply let Kai lead the way.

Over the years we have tried a variety of activities including Basketball, Nerf Wars, Soccer, Airsoft, Archery, and Swimming but the only constant was board sports. Kai was determined to skate, skim and surf! He has lived in our neighborhood most of his life, so he feels totally comfortable skateboarding around here. He uses his cane to sweep the pavement in front of him. And, from time to time he and a friend will go to a small skate park in a neighboring town and hit the ramps. They go early before the crowds and Kai wears a helmet, knee pads and a bright yellow jersey over his clothes that reads “Blind Athlete.” He enjoys freedom while skating. He’s able to get speed, do tech tricks and get an adrenaline rush.

A few years ago, Kai had the opportunity to attend a surf camp for kids who are blind and visually impaired and thanks to some great surf instructors at Indojax Surf Charities he felt like a pro by the end of the week. I think this is the first time he tried out a “Dakota Disk” cane tip which is a wide Frisbee style that works great in the sand because it doesn’t get stuck in ruts.

kai skim 3
Kai skimming when he was fully sighted at the age of 3, his 7-year-old brother Cash is on the shore holding his board.

Skimboarding has always been Kai’s first love. He began skimming at the age of 3 with his older brother. As his skills developed, he graduated from sand skimming on a wooden board to wave-skimming on a carbon fiber board. Skimboarding at this level involves sprinting full speed on a public beach while holding the board. Then, dropping the board and jumping onto it while sliding out to ride the waves (surfers ride in, skimmers ride out). How could he safely continue this sport?

I did a little research and found that a world champion skimboarder, Austin Keen, was holding a skimboarding camp at our local beach. I called and explained Kai’s situation and Austin was “STOKED!” to work with him. Kai attended the camp, wearing a yellow “blind athlete” rash guard with mom and dad nervously hovering to be sure he didn’t collide with other skimmers. The pro watched his form and made suggestions that were helpful. Austin taught him a move called the “Monkey Crawl” which allows Kai to run full speed from the beach into the knee-high water then slide the board under his feet in one smooth swoop. This move allows him to get on the board without having to let go until his feet are firmly planted. The monkey crawl works for Kai and now that he’s spent so many hours training he has also mastered the one-step drop. This means he drops the board out of his hands into the water then takes one step to get on it. Kai says it’s all muscle memory, but as a parent, it is a sight to behold — pure joy and freedom!

The skimboarding community is amazing! We have never had a single problem from contest organizers when we register Kai as a “blind athlete” they simply ask how they can help. During Kai’s first two competitions a pro, Casey Keirnan, offered to help him scope the waves since the timelines are tight and the crowds are noisy, which makes it difficult to “find the rhythm of the waves.” Casey also helped to ensure that Kai is not on a direct collision course with another competitor. Kai was thrilled making it into the semi-finals recently against fully sighted competitors. In fact, after seeing Kai’s speed and determination at camp, Austin Keen made a few calls and Kai became the world’s first legally blind sponsored skimboarder! Now Kai gets high contrast brightly colored boards from Exile Skimboards which help him spot his board in the surf. Austin even met up with us on a vacation to California and took Kai to the legendary Thousand Steps Beach and we also experienced “The Wedge.” This is the stuff skimmers dreams are made of – and its Kai’s reality!

An image of Kai skimboarding and catching air off the waves. He's wearing a jersey which reads "Blind Athlete" across the back.
Kai skimboarding and catching air off the waves.

His next goal is to try snowboarding. We live in flat, coastal Georgia, but Kai applied to attend a winter extreme camp in Colorado through Extreme Mobility Camps (XMO). He’s super excited about the opportunity.

Kids who are blind / VI can do anything they set their minds and hearts to as long as we give them the opportunity and support necessary to succeed. Simply look for the SPARKLE and take advantage of even the slightest glimmer of interest.

As moms, we know that it takes a ton of courage to let them try out new activities, but the benefits are worth the risks. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help, find mentors and make accommodations. We have found the sports communities to be exceptionally welcoming. Our kiddos need healthy ways to cope with everyday stress, and physical activity helps them to be physically, emotionally and mentally healthy. Sports also help our kids to connect with peers and new communities with shared interests. So, take a deep breath, and get ready. On your mark. Get set. GO!

Personal Recommendations from Kim & Hilda

The National Ability Center (NAC)

Extreme Mobility Camps (XMO)

Indojax Surf Camp

No Barriers Summit (read more here)

The following is an additional list of camps and resources that have been recommended by parents in our community:

SEE Summer Camp in NC 

KAOS! through Susquehanna Valley Team River Runner kayaking in PA

Wisconsin Lions Camp (there are active chapters in most states)

Envision VIP Sports Camps, PA.

Camp Abilities (2020 NY)

Helen Diller Home/beach camp NJ

Camp Marcella, a traditional summer camp, NJ

Lions Bear Lake Camp in MI

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