When Jonathan Cauchi lost his vision at age 12, he was told sports was no longer in his future. The Michigan Blind Athletic Association’s Sports Education Camp (SEC) showed him otherwise.
“I can truly say this camp changed my life,” says Cauchi, who’s now one of the camp’s co-directors. “When I went to camp, it was the first time I was around other people who were blind or had low vision. I saw that these people were able to achieve great things with blindness and it was a huge motivating factor to me.
“I’ve been bound and determined to give that back to the next generation.”
Now in its 33rd
year — there was a three-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic — the SEC will take place at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Senior camp is May 18-21 for 13-year-olds to 18-year-olds still in high school, and junior camp is May 22-23 for kids ages 9-12. Details are available at miblindsports.org/sportscamp
Athletes attending their first year have a set schedule to try everything the SEC offers. For those who return in subsequent years, the young athletes get to customize their schedule so they can choose their focus.
To achieve SEC’s heady goals, staff empowers young people by teaching them basic adaptive sports skills and activities. This, in turn, increases the knowledge of parents, teachers, and the community about adaptations required for participating in sports and about increasing access to physical education, sports, and recreation by building a network of advocates.
“At the time of the sports camp founding, schools for the blind were shutting down so blind students could be integrated into public schools,” says Cauchi. “Then they were on the sidelines of gym classes and not able to participate.”
Paul Ponchilia, one of the Sports Education Camp’s founders.
SEC addresses head-on the barriers that appear inherent in sports and recreation, according to Paul Ponchillia, one of the camp’s founders.
“Camaraderie is important,” says Ponchillia. “It’s even more important for kids who are visually impaired because they’re pretty isolated most of the time. So, when they come to camp, it’s unbelievable because they form these long-lasting relationships. They have a strength. It’s a group strength. These kids go away as athletes, knowing they’re athletes. That’s very cool.”
A group of adult athletes with visual impairments formed the Michigan Blind Athletic Association in 1982 so they could play beep baseball, an adaptive sport for the blind or visually impaired. Beep baseball has only two bases — first and third — which emit a beeping sound and are about 4 feet tall. Players run toward the beeping bases after the ball is hit.
First camp held in 1988
After affiliating itself with Western Michigan University’s Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies in 1984, the group’s attention turned to the broader challenge of physical education and sports for children with visual impairments. The first Sports Education Camp was held in 1988.
Now in its 33rd year, the Michigan Blind Athletic Association’s Sports Education Camp teaches youth basic adaptive sports skills and activities.
A plethora of adaptive sports is available for kids to delve into, including soccer, bowling, swimming, hockey, track and field, judo, baseball, and goalball (a team sport designed specifically for people with visual impairments that has participants compete in teams of three as they try to throw a ball with bells embedded inside into the opponents' goal).
Christine Brauker, co-director of the Michigan Blind Athletic Association’s Sports Education Camp (right) poses with one of the camps' athletes Abby.
All of the young athletes in goalball are blindfolded, including those who have no vision at all, says Christine Brauker, co-director of the camp, who’s also a teacher consultant for the blind and vision impaired.
“Vision loss is a spectrum,” says Brauker. “There’s a huge array. Even someone who’s blind may be able to see some light, some shadows, versus another student who’s blind who has none of that, so we level the playing field.”
The “education” in the Sports Education Camp includes teaching independent living and social skills, such as learning how to navigate new routes on WMU’s campus, making their beds, and taking care of themselves independently.
“It’s a way for all of us to push for these skills they need and for them to learn adaptation of sports they can take back to their schools and incorporate,” says Brauker.
A plethora of adaptive sports is available for kids to delve into, including soccer, bowling, swimming, hockey, track and field, judo, baseball, and goalball (a team sport designed specifically for people with visual impairments).
Learning goes beyond sports
Camp staff are trained on how to interact with SEC athletes to ensure a positive experience.
“We make sure we are making things accessible to them, letting them feel things, asking if they’re comfortable with us touching them when we’re approaching them to show how to kick (a ball) or when holding a ball,” says Brauker. “There’s a lot of modeling, a lot of explaining. We break it down. Whether it’s going to the cafeteria, learning a new environment — where the plates are, where to take your tray — or showing them the boundaries while playing soccer.”
Cauchi agrees with Brauker that the students learn much more than how to swing a bat or do the breaststroke. They gain confidence in themselves.
“Yes, you’re playing sports while you’re at camp, but you are learning so many more life lessons and skills while you are there,” he says. “We want to ensure our athletes have the tools to live a healthy and active life.”
This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.