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Goalball in Blindfolds, Soccer in Wheelchairs: Cal Busts Barriers to Competitive Sports

February 11, 2014
by Katherine Seligman

Ann Kwong could not see the ball hurtling toward her, but she knew who had thrown it—a member of UC Berkeley’s rugby team easily twice her size. Lying on the gym floor, she could hear its insistent rattle and sense the speed.  She tensed for the impact as the ball hit her thighs with a solid thwak.

Spectators winced. As for Kwong, she jumped up and hurled the ball back.

“I’m usually a safe person,” she says, “but this has taught me to take risks. You just have to dive on the ball.”

It wasn’t that Kwong couldn’t see the ball coming because she was looking elsewhere—the Cal junior is visually impaired, and she’s wearing a thick black blindfold. So what is she doing in such a fierce physical matchup against top athletes?

In this game of goalball, none of the players can see the ball: Sighted or not, all must wear thick black blindfolds, along with a heightened sense that a sphere of hard blue rubber weighing almost three pounds and traveling up to 30 miles an hour, could strike anywhere.

The game, in a class held at Cal’s Recreational Sports Facility, is part of the university’s groundbreaking project to include people with disabilities in competitive and recreational sports. Even those who have never played team sports of any kind are placed side-by-side with varsity team players and non-jocks at every level of coordination.

“I’d have never thought I could play without my sight,” says rugby player Nick Salaber, hiking up his blindfold between games. “It’s a new experience figuring out which angle the ball is coming from. It has helped with spatial awareness.”

Fitness for All was started last year not only to make sports accessible to staff and students with disabilities, but also to teach about accessibility issues and change attitudes. It already features an assortment of classes probably not found on any other campus.

Aside from goalball, a game invented in Austria to rehabilitate World War II veterans, the program offers a golf class taught by a disabled instructor so well known that his course is simply called Golf With Marty, and a third sport new this term—a power soccer class with disabled and able-bodied students in electric wheel chairs. For anyone who needs to get into shape, the university has a new satellite gym near the football stadium with workout machines that can be easily used or modified.

“We want Berkeley to be the first campus in California to have competitive sports for people who are disabled, and to be a leader in doing that,” says Matt Grigorieff, coordinator and a founder of Fitness for All, which has support from nonprofits, private donors and the university. “Given our history here in Berkeley with disability rights, we should be the first.”

It was, after all, in Berkeley that the disability rights movement took shape in the 1960s. At the time, the university’s small population of disabled students lived at Cowell Hospital. By 1969 they organized and moved to the south side of Berkeley, dubbing themselves the Rolling Quads, and advocating for curb cuts and other changes that would increase access to education and transit.

Four years later they became the Disabled Students Union. The group was instrumental in founding the Center for Independent Living in the early 1970s, a nationally known advocacy and support organization that works on public access issues. Today, the group helps more than 850 students with academic advising and accommodations, counseling and housing.

The university has been recognized for the pioneering work of those students, but also for academic research, teaching, and outreach on issues affecting people living with disabilities. The Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, a research and policy hub at the university, plans to add a chair of disability studies.

Grigorieff said his interest in disability rights was, in the beginning, personal. He suffered from a chronic hip disorder that, although not visible to others, left him in constant pain. At 21, he was installing car stereos for a living and going to community college in Irvine, where he learned about adaptive physical education. The only problem was that he kept getting parking tickets while he went to class. In order to fight them he took a law class. He ended up doing so well he transferred to Berkeley, where he became a Haas Scholar with a chance to do original, mentored research.

“It’s scary, especially if you’re a guy,” said recent grad Eric Elvebak, who is legally blind. “You have less than a second to identify where the ball is going.”

It seemed to him the perfect chance to delve into how colleges around the state and country approached physical education for students with disabilities. Later, as a graduate student in education, he conceived of a project to get disabled students into sports classes and educate them—and everyone else—about what they could accomplish.

“There has never been a class quite like this before,” said Gary Robb, president of the National Alliance for Accessible Golf, which provided funding for the golf class. “Our ultimate goal is to get people with disabilities into more active lifestyles and to inform and engage the community to see that anybody can play golf in one form or another.”

Instructor Marty Turcios was born with cerebral palsy and, he says, a passion for golf and destroying stereotypes. His family lived near a golf course in Contra Costa County, and by age 6 or 7 he was begging to play.  By 7th grade he was sneaking into the golf course, so his parents finally joined.

“I was going to play whether my mom or dad liked it or not,” he said. “I was too young to know I wasn’t supposed to play.”

He continued playing, but had a tough time in high school, where he was in a mainstream classroom in the days before disability rights.

“I took my knocks,” he said. “I’m tough but it was difficult to help people understand what it’s like.”

At Fresno State University he graduated with honors, and later earned a masters degree in recreational therapy at San Jose State University, breaking down more barriers along the way. He was determined to play golf and use his skills to expose others to the sport often associated with elite clubs and expensive fees, even if some of his early students were shocked. And they were. He remembers times when people signed up for a class, took one look at him and demanded a refund.

At 54, he is head of his own nonprofit organization, and has taught high school students, veterans with post-traumatic stress and war injuries, children with autism, and Berkeley students, from novices to experienced players. He’s also known on the Golf Channel.

“Golf is a very mental game,” he said, lugging his clubs toward the driving range at Tilden Park Golf Course, where he was meeting students for a morning of coaching. “If you slow down and think, you hit a ball farther and straighter.”

His technique is hands-on, one-on-one instruction, which had him constantly dropping to his knees to correct grip, feet position and swing momentum. Wearing a blue Cal fleece, khaki pants and Keen shoes, he surveyed, directed and corrected. 

“Slow down!” he said to Yaya Zhang, a business school student who had only played a few times in her life. “Why am I telling you to slow down?”

“It could be you know what you’re talking about,” she joked, as he moved down the line to the next students, reminding them to relax or stand tall.

“He is awesome—a really patient teacher,” Zhang said.

Ayaka Oishi, an exchange student from Japan, said she had no idea what to expect when she signed up for the class. “He is a good coach. Very precise,” she said. And she acknowledged that while she had learned a lot about golf, she also learned how much someone with disabilities can do. “In my country, this community is completely separated,” she said. “This is really a special thing.”

Ann Kwong, who is a co-president of the Disabled Students Union, also took the class last fall, but was dubious at first that she’d do anything but hit the air or the ground. She had tried mini-golf with friends, with little success.

“I didn’t think it was doable,” she said. “But when he was telling me how to get in position, he demonstrated. He modeled it and was very patient. I gave it a few tries and then when I got in the right position, I hit the ball. It was very satisfying.”

Because of her school schedule, Kwong is sticking to goalball this term, when she will act as a teaching assistant. At just under 5 feet tall, she is perhaps the most diminutive player, but that has not held her back.

“Ann has a sense of what’s going on out on the floor,” said Jonathan Newman, a consultant from the Bay Area Outreach & Recreation Program, who coaches the team along with former Paralympic athlete Brandon Young. ”She is willing to sacrifice her body out there.”

What’s going on is not always apparent to newcomers. Goalball is played by two teams of three people—two wings and a center—who try to score points by tossing a ball past a goal line. The lines on the court are marked by duct tape, a tactile material that players feel their way along as they work to defend their goal. The biggest line of defense is a prone body, strategically placed to catch the ball, which has bells inside to announce its arrival. Players must learn to listen intensely, navigate by feel and sense of direction, and develop what Young calls “muscle memory” for moves and positions.

“It’s scary, especially if you’re a guy,” said Eric Elvebak, a recent graduate who is legally blind. “You have less than a second to identify where the ball is going.”

In a recent session, 10 students stood around the coaches as they reviewed the rules: no touching blindfolds, raise your hand if you want a time out, no stepping over the duct-taped lines while throwing. The coaches hoped some players would sign up for a club team—the first at a California university. By the end of class, a team emerged, and played in a local tournament the following weekend.

“They didn’t win, but they were fighting,” said Newman. “They even scored some goals and they had a great time.” Most importantly, he said, they were a team.

Ultimately, Grigorieff hopes, the National Collegiate Athletic Association will offer the same privileges to elite disabled athletes that it does to all its members.

“We hope this sends a message,” said Grigorieff. “Originally they didn’t include women either.”

Meanwhile, barriers still exist. Athletic sponsors, organizations, even many students with disabilities don’t yet know they can participate in a full range of sports. The new satellite gym, with its accessible location and equipment, has yet to be discovered by most disabled students and staff. 

“Students (in the classes) are working hard,” said Newman, “but it’s based in an academic setting. How do we move it to competition? That’s a big step to take, whether it’s an intermural club or an NCAA sport. The NCAA is a wish, a hope, a dream.”

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