by Lacey Markle
There are an estimated 52,000 school-aged children who are blind and visually impaired in the United States. Nearly 70 percent do not participate in even a limited physical education curriculum. The barriers that blind and visually impaired youth face are numerous and primarily the consequences of moving their education from residential schools, where physical educators with blindness knowledge deliver specialized services in relatively small classes, to public schools where educators may have less knowledge, time and resources to apply to students who are visually impaired.
The benefits of sports and recreation have been shown to continue from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. A recent survey of United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) members revealed that not only do participants benefit academically from their involvement in sports during elementary and high school, but 57 percent of USABA members went on to pursue a college degree, more than double the national average of 23 percent for their visually impaired peers.
In an effort to increase involvement in physical activity as well as higher education, 18 agencies assisting youth who are blind and visually impaired are working toward a healthier lifestyle with the start of the National Fitness Challenge, which was created by the United States Association of Blind Athletes and funded by the WellPoint Foundation, the philanthropic arm of WellPoint, Inc. USABA and the WellPoint Foundation are actively working toward a healthier lifestyle by providing talking pedometers as well as fitness and nutrition coaches for each agency. Each athlete has the opportunity to be the top boy or girl from their agency and participate in the final National Fitness Challenge, a four-day camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., where they will participate in track and field, goalball, swimming, and strength and conditioning workouts in order to learn more about fitness and become more involved in their communities.
Mark Lucas, executive director of USABA, explained, "Our goal for the National Fitness Challenge is the top 36 teens will go back to their communities and join sports teams. We want to reward the teens for their hard work and dedication toward leading an active and healthy lifestyle. Each participant will be provided skill development that can lead to national and international competitions."
As the National Fitness Challenge comes to a close, USABA and the WellPoint Foundation hope the athletes meet their goal of a 50 percent total decrease in body mass index (BMI). Not only will these teens lower their BMI, but through participation in sports and physical activity, these teens will realize new levels of independence, confidence and determination.