GETTING OFF THE BENCH

GETTING OFF THE BENCH
by Sheila Styron

(Editor's note: For more information about the Oral Hull Foundation, visit www.oralhullfoundation.org.)

Growing up as a healthy albeit totally blind child attending public school, I was often prevented from participating in mainstream physical education activities. I spent hours sitting on a bench while sighted peers played volleyball and other sports. True, I did perfect a piercing wolf whistle while hanging around, which not just anyone can do. However, I was a tomboy, loved outdoor activities and felt deprived when others in and out of school had so many opportunities to engage in physical activities which weren’t accessible to me.

I worked on perfecting cartwheels in my front yard which, although I practiced with boundless energy, I never got quite right. If there had been more inclusive recreation programs around in the '60s, I know I would have participated. One of the downsides of mainstreaming was the absence of accessible sports and outdoor activities.

In high school, I co-owned a tandem bicycle with a girlfriend, but like so many other young girls, never did manage to talk my parents into buying me a horse. I hiked the John Muir Trail with the YMCA, my hand lightly touching the backpack of the person in front of me and hung out at the beach with my friends, a fair-skinned teenager flirting with skin cancer.

Training with my first guide dog during the summer between high school and college loomed large in my life. Walking with Inca made me feel like I was flying, where previously I had felt like I was only tagging along. As an undergraduate at UCLA, the closest I came to playing sports was singing the national anthem at football games. After earning my B.A. in music, for the next few years, exercise meant carrying around equipment for band gigs. Later, I discovered workout tapes which I did with sighted girlfriends who showed me the routines. Remember Jane Fonda and Cindy Crawford?

Fast-forward to the late '90s when I began working with others who were blind or visually impaired. I started hearing about this great cross-country skiing program, Ski for Light, but it wasn't until 2002 that I finally got around to applying. The Internet was still up and coming and I didn't know anyone who attended, so basically, didn't know what I had been missing. Then I spent my first week in Colorado, skiing beside my wonderful guide Inger, who was of course Norwegian. With only the sound of her voice and a set of man-made tracks in the snow to guide me, I began experiencing some of the best fun I've ever had. The camaraderie at SFL is amazing, not to mention six days of skiing and yoga every morning followed by stretch class. Imagine, an entire week of guide dog-friendly physical fitness heaven, unless you prefer to sleep in a little later, hang out, dance the night away and concentrate on boning up on your social skills. Whether you're the competitive sort who wants to ski as much as possible, or would prefer to enjoy a more leisurely vacation in a beautiful setting, Ski for Light is an annual treat that, once tried, many return to experience again and again. For more information, visit www.sfl.org.

In 2009, there were still more than a few adventures on my to-do list, which is when my good friend and colleague, Donna Permar, discovered the Oral Hull Foundation for the Blind on the Internet, where people come to sky dive, bungee jump, white water raft, wind surf, hike along beautiful Oregon trails and so much more! This sounded great, so we signed ourselves and husbands up and, along with our four guide dogs, headed off to Sandy, Ore. Near the base of Mount Hood and situated on 23 beautiful, fragrant acres, the Oral Hull Foundation offers a wide variety of opportunities for adults who are visually impaired and crave experiences from participating in activities like wind surfing to simply breathing the fresh air at camp, which actually does smell green. For a daredevil like myself, it's exhilarating to be able to skydive one day, then take on class 3 rapids the next. However, I realize that jumping out of airplanes is not on everyone's list, and time spent at the Oral Hull Foundation represents a unique experience for each attendee. I was deeply touched by others' reflections during our final evening together, notably, one person's newly found confidence that she would be able to adjust to her blindness as the result of her life-changing Oral Hull experience.

Much has changed in the world since I was a child sitting on a bench while my classmates participated in activities I could only dream of enjoying. Now there are great inclusive adaptive programs out there like Ski for Light and the Oral Hull Foundation for the Blind, and I encourage each of you to take advantage of the fantastic opportunities they provide for people with disabilities to finally get off the bench.