Overcoming barriers in sport as a blind person – My experiences

From a very young age I was always taught the benefits of sport, but I never realised how important it would become to me. I’ve been registered as severely sight impaired from birth, with a number of conditions including Nystagmus, with about 5-10% vision, and I learnt very quickly that there were extra barriers to accessing sports for VI people.  I’ve never let that stop me, and I’ve managed to reach an international level of competition in Para swimming, but there are still difficulties out there for VI athletes, in any sport.  

When I was in primary school I was never able to fully participate in the PE curriculum because of a lack of learning support provision at primary level, and even when I could join in, I was often left with the task of keeping score as I found it extremely difficult to keep up since most of the time we played hockey, netball and badminton. This carried on in secondary education as although I was given a learning support assistant to help me, large class numbers and quick paced lessons meant I did have to sit out at times, although I always tried to participate in some way.  However, I had taken swimming lessons since the age of 4, and some of my family were very keen runners, so I used to try and join weekend activity clubs in those sports.  In year 6 I also helped to represent my school in cricket at some local inter county competitions, as I was very fortunate enough to be given 1-1 sessions with a teacher and felt like giving myself a challenge. 

When I was 11, I went to a talent ID day with other SEN pupils from my local county and it was there that I was encouraged to join a swim team. I had always liked swimming but never really thought that I was any good.  A couple of years later and I was competing in able bodied competitions all around my county, and when I was 14 I got my Para swimming classification.  Since then I have entered and won medals in many Para swimming regional and national events as well as local ones with my swim club, including 4 county championships. Over the past couple of years I have competed in international competitions, including the Rio 2016 Paralympic trials and the 2017 British International Paraswimming championships.  I also became National gold medallist in my favourite events in 2016, the 50m and 100m freestyle, and National gold medallist in the 100m backstroke in 2015.

Swimming is probably one of the main driving forces behind my self-esteem, it has allowed me so many wonderful opportunities and I have met some fantastic people, even if I have had to make sacrifices along the way. I have also become much more independent and focused on what I want to achieve both in and outside of my sport, and am forever grateful to my parents too.  They always kept encouraging me through the horrible training sessions, and drove hours on weekends so I could compete. 

However, although the Para swimming world is inviting for VI swimmers, there are still difficulties. When I have received target sheets and results from national coaches they are often handwritten or in very small font, making it difficult for me to access them.  In addition, competition set up can mean that officials and technical equipment can be in the way on poolside, therefore sometimes it is difficult to make my way around them.  From talking with other VI athletes, it is also a common trend to find that in a lot of sports there is still a lack of awareness on the difficulties visually impaired athletes face; one of these particularly being when sorted into our race positions with other competitors, as organisers can be very vague in explanation or try to rush.  Sometimes it is a lot harder to be a Para athlete too, because we aren’t always taken seriously, and training can be more difficult when coaches do not understand your needs.  There were many times where I seriously questioned whether this was worth it, and whether I could actually achieve anything.  It can be a lot harder for athletes in Para sport to gain confidence, but you learn quickly that progress takes a while.   

Although these are challenges, improvements are being made, particularly in Swimming, and many more VI children are being encouraged to be involved with sport. Overall, I couldn’t have asked for a much better experience in Para Swimming, and over the next couple of years I hope to achieve even more as I go to university and compete there.  Even though there are people who will question your commitment to sport, who may not believe that you have much potential, the most important lesson I have learnt is to prove them wrong.  Do the unexpected; go to that extra practice, because it is really worth it.     

VioletKatie xx

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It’s okay to be different

Good morning!

I would like to address an issue that is constantly appearing in my school during different phases of the year, and which appears to follow me around all the time….

Everyone is different, and everyone has their quirks and their limitations.  However one thing that we do too often is to let other people’s opinions and criticisms consume us.  We feel more influenced by what others think, than what we think ourselves.  This does make a little sense to be honest, however I feel that some people just take it too far.  I know I am different, you know you are different, there is no normal.

One thing that has led me to become largely annoyed over the previous weeks is the inability of some to accept that we do not go by the same lives.  I have countless people tell me in the past week “well it’s your fault you can’t see the worksheet, you deal with it” and “you aren’t very popular so why would you not accept an invitation to come to my party – I’m trying to help you look cool”.  First of all, may I just say I wouldn’t change who i am for anyone, and there are things that do prove challenging to deal with.  However I wouldn’t be who I am without them.  The person who thinks that I’m not cool, and not popular, has never before talked to me.  They don’t know that I swim, dance, volunteer and have a seperate life away from school.  And I enjoy these things, they help me learn and grow as a person, and I’ve had so many opportunities to make new friends and try other things.  The reason I don’t really go to parties is because I don’t have the time and I don’t find these people interesting.  The sad thing is that some people go to parties every week, as it is the only thing they do.  That is their choice, and my choice is mine.  If only more people would understand that it is okay to not follow the crowd, and to be your own person, and I am happy to have my small group of friends at school.

To the people who blame me for my visual impairment, and tell me to “deal with it”, I’ve been doing that all my life.  I don’t just “deal with it” anyway.  I embrace the fact that I perceive the world differently, and although it does take more time and effort to do things, that is okay.  Life is too short to worry and be upset by your limitations, I learnt that a long time ago.  Being visually impaired is part of who I am, and I feel it makes me more interesting.  I’ve had challenges and setbacks, just like everyone else.  However I have accepted these and overcome them.

To the people who tell me I’m boring, and that I look weird.  You never talk to me unless you have to.  You may ignore me and pretend I’m not in your class, but I am.  I have opinions like you do, you just never hear them as you are too scared to talk to the “vi girl”.  But I’m not just VI, I’m a student, I’m a girl, and I’m a human.  Everyone deserves a certain level of common decency and respect, but unfortunately there are people in this world, in this generation, who are not able to look past the obvious.  It is a shame this is true.  I may not be able to talk about everything you want to, and I may not understand why people chose to do some things, but I can discuss ideas, and events, and many things inbetween.  I do have a brain, and a heart, just like everyone else.  But I am different, and that is nothing to be afraid of.

My message to the people who doubt me is; I am just as capable as living life to the fullest as you are, and I intend to do so.  People believing I can not do things very well, and I don’t fit in with everyone else, I honestly don’t care.  I have my life, and I will enjoy it.  I have often spent hours crying because I couldn’t accept who I am, and I thought I was a disappointment to everyone who knew me.  I used to deliberately skip social events because I thought I would embarrass everyone else, but I won’t do it anymore.  I’m tired of sacrificing who I really am to make others feel better.  I want to live, and those people who aren’t happy with that – you deal with it.

Love Violetkatie xx

Misconceptions about visual impairment

Good evening again!

The second half term of the year has began, and I’ve been given the task to support some young SEN students in year 7.  Of course this has been quite interesting and kept me on my toes, however I feel as if this has brought back memories from when I was in year 7, and how many of my peers didn’t understand the term “visually impaired”.  Since I have been at my school for such a long time, I feel that views on SEN people have changed, but this isn’t exactly true in the “outside world”.  Today I will be listing a few common misconceptions of visual impairment.

  1. Visual impairment isn’t actually black and white.  Excusing the pun first of all, I used to get told that I was making up the fact I was visually impaired because I wore glasses, but in fact my glasses only correct a small percentage of my vision as the rest can not be corrected.  There are many different eye conditions that affect how much we see, and even when people are registered as “blind”, many people do have light perception or can see hand movements.
  2. .Just because someone is visually impaired does not mean they are dumb.  This has actually happened to me so many times. When I was younger I used to have a couple of support assistants in my lessons to help make sure I could access the lesson material.  However I would be interrupted very often when they asked me questions like “do you want me to help you spell difficulty?” and “do you need me to rewrite the instructions in simpler vocabulary?”.  These have ended up being used as jokes between me and my friends, however when I was younger I did feel as if they were treating me like an idiot, even though I was in top sets for most of my subjects.  This is also very common for some of my other blindie friends.
  3.  Having a visual impairment does not make me any less normal than anyone else.  To this day I have had people tell me “but you’re so normal”.  This is in fact the thing which probably annoys me the most.  We have all been told that everyone is different.  People who are visually impaired are not defined by their disability, it is their ability which is the most important.  Many people don’t realise that visually impaired people can do a lot of the same things and be just as good, or even better, as everyone else.  The only thing is we have to do things a bit differently.
  4. I am not ashamed of who I am and there is no need for “I’m sorry”.  Believe it or not, I do not wish to be any different than who I am, and my disability is not a burden.  A lot of adults have always apologised when they have found out I am visually impaired, telling me I’m “very brave” and apparently follow that with a sorrowful look.  I will not lie and say having a disability is not hard, because to put it politely it can be very frustrating.  However I will set the record straight and say that visually impaired people are in charge of their disability and their life, not the other way round.  We do not let it hold us back and so there is no need for any pity, because we do not need to be reminded of our disability and we are not helpless.

I could go on forever about the misconceptions of visually impaired people, however I’m not that mean.  Hopefully this post hasn’t been too dull, and I will leave you with my life philosophy.

“Love who you are and be yourself because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind”

 

Love Violetkatie xx