Sunday, March 15, 2009

Visually impaired are amongst the athletes!

Sunday February 22nd saw 22 racers with a disability compete in the Vancouver Island Society for Adaptive Snowsport's (VISAS) 2009 Recreational 'Glalom' Race.

The event was run by VISAS and the Mount Washington Ski Club in partnership with the Disabled Skiers Association of BC, (DSABC).

The conditions were tough due to the new and continued snowfall and the competition was fierce! The athletes competed in the categories of visually impaired, sitting, standing and cognitive.

There was large turn out from VISAS's own race team as well as the team from the Vancouver Adaptive Snowsports Society, one new athlete from the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program and members from the BC Disabled Alpine Ski Team, (BCDAST).

The day prior to the race the athletes took part in a race development clinic run by Provincial Team Coaches.

These included Phil Chew, Head Coach of the BCDAST, himself a Paralympian.

Local female skiers that secured podium finishes were visually impaired skier Tamara St Denis and her guide Jen Bowlby who were awarded gold in the visually impaired category; Kristy Tymos received a gold in the women's sitting; new comer Rheanne McLaughin raced to gold medal position with just 12 days of skiing to date and Meghan Williams won gold in the cognitive division.

Local male skiers swept the medals in the men's standing division with Andreas Ratthiewicz winning gold and Braydon Luscombe silver, (both skiers are members of the BC Disabled Alpine Ski Team). However it was the Vancouver Mainland that swept the medals in the men's cognitive division with Mark Hopkins, (gold), Jesse Price, (silver) and Cory Duhaine, (bronze).

For full results visit

This is the first race in a brand new Provincial recreational race series supported by DSABC as part of its 'Building our Best' program.

The high performance program was initiated in 2003 in response to the recognized gap in athlete development between the recreational skier and the high performance athlete. DSABC also wanted to address the need to provide more support to athletes who then wanted to take part in racing on a recreational basis.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Visually impaired artists

They are artists, but for this group of individuals, there is one distinct difference between them and others: they each have some form of vision impairment. An exhibition is being showcased at the Horton Gallery from Feb. 26 to Mar. 26, with pieces of art created by individuals from the visually impaired community.

The show, named Creative Vision: An Exhibition on Vision and Perception, was accompanied with a panel and luncheon of some of the artists was held before the public opening.

Artists present were: Scott Nelson, Charles Blackwell, Pete Eckert, Alice Wingwall, and Kurt Weston.

Nelson, discusses differences of perception; one person with sight would perceive only what they see, but someone else would be able to see with thought: the idea of what something is.

One of Nelson's work, entitled Eyenatomy of a Defect, is the readout of Nelson's eyes that show the damaged and healthy areas of his vision. Along with the diagram are depictions of possible accidents related to vision impairment. He explains that this is a way of conveying his condition and how he had a fear of vision related accidents.

Nelson states the purpose of his work as a curator and artist as "A remedy to correct the misperceptions about the visually impaired."?

Jan Marlese, Horton Gallery curator, and Nelson had met 20 years ago when the artist was discussing his Art of the Eye show, and became the catalyst that helped Marlese change her major from psychology to Art Administration. Marlese was finally able to parallel her own version of Nelson's show by bringing these artists together.

Pete Eckert, a photographer who has complete vision loss, described how perceptual vision, and how subjects can be misinterpreted or mismatched, and how he prefers to be the optimist.

"I don't give up." stated Eckert, "Just because you hit something that's hard, don't give up. There's always a way around anything."

Charles Blackwell, who contributed 3 pieces of ink on paper work, is also a poet. He described one of his influences as being jazz music, an interest that has been in his life since he was young. ?

Blackwell attended jazz shows, and using what he remembers from those shows and the sound from the music, and created the pieces on display. The shadowed figures and vibrancy of colors emulate the sound that Blackwell heard and conveyed what he saw in his mind to his viewers.

Alice Wingwall, who contributed mixed media pieces as well as drawings, does not see visual impairment as a negative. Like everyone on the panel, she is an optimist, and sees this as a way to create the work showcased. She described when she lost her sight, she gained vision, and she doesn't want to stop.

Wingwall states that, "The camera is now my eye, and the film is in much better shape than my retina." noting her transition from one eye to another.

Wingwall's 3-D mixed media entitled Framing by Word and by Chair and Aileron: Dog on the Wing have elements of both the English language and Braille. This is so that both the visually impaired and the physical sight community can both enjoy the pieces, but in different perspectives.

Kurt Weston, a photographer produced a series of self-portraits encompassing the different losses one must face with visual impairment.

He says that even though he has a disability, it frees up limits and helps illustrate personal vision.

Weston stressed the importance of community, and how being associated with groups gives support for each other.

Marlese states that, "Vision exists beyond physical capability to see." Meaning that the visually impaired can still make art.

Those visiting the exhibition will be impressed and inspired of this triumph over physical adversity, and that all it takes is to have the drive.

Visually impaired man to represent the USA at Sailing Championship in New Zealand

Despite losing his vision, Jason Wallenstein never stopped sailing.

This past weekend, the Sharon native left for the Bay of Plenty in Rotorua, New Zealand, for the 2½-week Blind Sailing World Championships.

Wallenstein’s team of four visually impaired sailors from the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton will represent the United States along with a team from California.

“I’ve been sailing all my life, since I was 4 years old,” said Wallenstein, who began losing his vision in 2001 because of diabetes.

When Wallenstein began going to the Carroll Center for rehabilitation in 2004, he discovered the center’s recreational and competitive sailing programs.

“I never raced in my life until I got to the Carroll Center,” he said. “It came quite easily, actually.”

He is racing in the B3 division, for those who are least visually impaired.

Wallenstein’s crew will compete in Noelex 25 sailboats, which Wallenstein described as “little Lamborghinis on the water.”

“They’re fast, very agile and they really do move,” he said. “They just accelerate so quickly. If you’re not paying attention, they can get out of control.”

Sailing without seeing the waves, land or other boats can be difficult, Wallenstein said.

“Getting disoriented is easy, but knowing where the wind is coming from is not so easy, because you can’t see telltales (wind indicators),” he said.

Each team of four sailors is accompanied by four sighted guides, but the guides are not allowed to touch the sails or the tiller unless the boat is about to flip over or collide with something.

“It’s great that all these people out there are willing to help us become accomplished in doing what we love,” Wallenstein said.

More information and race results are available at

Visually impaired athlete shines at the Para-Nordic World Cup

As he watched another parade of Russians posing between two Mounties while clutching their flowers and native carvings from the Para-Nordic World Cup awards ceremony, team leader Andrei Shubkov bluntly stated his country's advantage.

"I think 3,000 or 4,000 athletes all over Russia," the cherubic-faced Shubkov said in heavily accented English when asked how many para-nordic skiers there were in the country.

"They train so much and they would like to get more medals, not only this year but also next year in the Vancouver Paralympics."

If not for their pesky neighbours to the west, Ukraine, and Canada's Brian McKeever, they might just take them all.

Now that might be overstating the Russian dominance just a bit, but after four days of biathlon and cross-country events in the Callaghan Valley, the Russians (12) and Ukraine (8) combined to take 20 of the 24 gold medals. The Russians also claimed nearly half of the 72 total medals with 33. Ukraine was next best with 16.

"The Russians are obviously very strong the last three years. We just have to crack at 'em a little bit here and there," says Kaspar Wirz, head coach of the Canadian team.

Canada won two gold, both by the visually impaired McKeever, who skied cross-country last week only to stay fresh for this week's national able-bodied championships, and a gift bronze for visually impaired Robbi Weldon, who moved to third in Saturday's cross-country sprint when a Russian skier was disqualified for skate skiing.

Canada might have only 100 or so para-nordic athletes, and many of its national team members are getting closer to senior discounts than the podium.

Sit skier Collette Bourgonje, who won two silver medals in Nagano and two bronze in Turin, will be 48 in 2010. Shauna Maria Whyte, who competes in the same class, is 41.

And four of five members of the development team, all of them who came to the sport in the last few years, are in their 40s.

While both the standing class for athletes with missing or non-functioning arms or who ski with prosthetic legs and the men's sit-ski class can have fields as deep as 25 to 30, the women's sit-ski and visually impaired classes at this World Cup had fewer than 10 competitors. In one of the biathlon events, only four female sit-skiers took part.

"The women's category is really suffering," says Canadian team leader Bjorn Taylor.

"It's a really tough sport. Beyond our national team, there might be half a dozen female sit-skiers. And there's maybe 10 men I can think of.

"It's not an easy sport. It's outdoors. It can be cold and it's very technical."

Paraplegics are more likely to try summer sports like wheelchair racing, hand cycling and wheelchair basketball, Taylor says.

"And in winter, a lot of amps and paras are going to sledge hockey,'' says Taylor. "Obviously, I'm biased. I think this is a more rewarding sport, but it's certainly more challenging in terms of access and everything else."

The Russians, who are gearing up for the 2014 Games in Sochi, debuted several visually impaired skiers in the last couple of years.

In fact, in the four women's races last week, there were five Russians in fields that ranged from just eight to 10, depending on the discipline. They swept gold and silver each time.

Weldon, a 33-year-old mother of two, who has only about six per cent vision due to Stargardt's disease, a genetic disorder affecting central vision, started cross-country skiing a few years ago and is in her third season on the World Cup.

"I've been putting in over 500 to 600 hours of training in a year to get myself up to the Russians," says Weldon, a former soccer player and triathlete.

The para-nordic athletes head to Mt. Washington this week for the World Cup finals.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Glass blowing workshop for the visually impaired

The Belmont Arts and Cultural Center is hosting a glass blowing workshop for several blind and visually impaired teenagers from Independence for the Blind of West Florida Saturday February 28 from 1:30-4:30pm. The group will be learning about the art of glass blowing. Each student will create 2 glass art pieces: the students will create one for themselves to keep, and the second piece will be auctioned off at the 2009 Eyeball on Saturday March 7.

The teens, including several Santa Rosa County residents, are participants in IB West’s Transition Program, funded in part by the Florida Department of Education, Division of Blind Services. The Transition Program prepares visually impaired high school students for college and the workforce through training in several areas: computer and adaptive software, socialization and recreation, vocational training such as resume writing, interviewing skills, and career exploration.

The Belmont Arts and Cultural Center is located in the historic Belmont-Devilliers community and offers classes in pottery wheel throwing, glass bead making, glass blowing, and sponsors the Belmont Youth Band. To learn more about what the Belmont Arts and Cultural Center offers, visit their website at

For more information on IB West or the 2009 Eyeball, call 850-477-2663.

Some of the best piano technicians are visually impaired

To most of us, the piano is some kind of magical mystery box. You sit down and play, and what comes out represents perfect precision in sound.

Each key does exactly what it's supposed to do, sounds exactly the way it's supposed to sound in relation to its neighbors, and the whole is a thing of mathematical beauty (skill of the player notwithstanding, of course).

Piano technicians know differently.

"People think you just sit down and make music," said Mark Burbey, a student at the School of Piano Technology for the Blind in Vancouver's Hudson's Bay neighborhood.

"But there are literally thousands of parts that have to work together."

Said student Robert Giles, "I have learned more about pianos in the past six months than I ever thought possible."

Giles has always been mechanically inclined, but he's not a musician. Burbey is.

Mechanical skills

According to school executive director Len Leger, mechanical aptitude probably outweighs musical talent when it comes to learning to be a piano tech.

What Burbey and Giles do share is reliance on their hands and their ears.

All eight students, three instructors and Leger, the school's president, have some level of visual impairment, from progressive glaucoma to total blindness from birth.

The chief mission of the school is to equip its students for productive, lucrative careers tuning and repairing America's 18 million pianos, Leger said.

"It's hard for blind people to find work," said Leger. "Fifty to 60 percent of blind people are unemployed. But 80 to 90 percent of our graduates are employed."

Sometimes it's a university with a lot of practice instruments that take a daily beating, he said. Sometimes it's a musical-instrument shop that needs to keep its stock ready to sell.

And often, Leger said, it's a student who starts a business as a tuner.

Out of the school's more than 300 graduates, Leger said, more than 200 have gone into business for themselves.

"We've been incubating small businesses for 60 years," he said recently, recognizing the school's anniversary in February.

The first blind piano tuner is thought to be a man named Claude Montal, who attended the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris, France, in the 1830s.

He proved to a skeptical world that blind people could do the job, Leger said.

In 1949, Emil Fries (pronounced "frees") set up his private nonprofit school in Vancouver after the Washington State School for the Blind eliminated vocational education in favor of academics alone, Leger said.

Fries, who thought vocational education was crucial, quit his teaching post and mortgaged everything he owned to start his school.

"He was legally blind himself," said Leger. And, it must be confessed, he's another legendary piano man who didn't play the piano.

Unique school

But he saw a need. He said his school remains the only private, nonprofit, vocational piano technology school for the blind in the world.

Students take a two-year, full-time course of study — putting in 2,800 clock hours of training time and mastering 343 individual tasks.

"Not everybody masters everything," Leger said. "Everybody learns at a different rate."

Graduates must be ready to perform normal home repairs and tune the instrument in "a commercially acceptable time."

Students start out taking hundreds of hours to tune one instrument, he said. They end up, if all goes well, ready to tune a couple per day.

Not everybody makes it, he said. Some "heavy testing" of hearing and other skills is a prerequisite for entering the school.

The myth that blind people have extra sharp hearing is a stereotype that turns out often to be true, he said.

"Brain research has demonstrated the plasticity of the brain. If you lose one sense, your brain can rewire itself to compensate."

Fries — who wrote a book called "But You Can Feel It," which is what his mother said to him when he complained about being sightless — died in 1997.

His school has had its ups and downs, Leger said, but today it's going strong.

It's commonly known as a "piano hospital" because it repairs and sells donated pianos to support its educational mission.

The school recruits heavily via the Internet, and students have come from 36 states and 14 countries.

"Big bucks" goal

Wilson Charles, 29, is a native of Haiti. He was majoring in political science at the University of Pennsylvania, he said, when he realized he needed a marketable skill. The classical pianist and singer decided to take a break from university and take the piano school's two-year course so he can make "big bucks," he said.

Those bucks will help him finish his college education and head for law school, he said.

Giles, who came from South Carolina, said a friend suggested he put his mechanical aptitude to use — he used to pull apart and rebuild computers for fun, he said — after he burned out on customer service.

"My wife and I sold the mobile home, and here we are," he said.