Traveling Blind 3: Penticton

In 2008, Robert and I traveled to Penticton for the first time as a couple and discovered how much we still needed to learn about each other.  I wrote about that trip in a 2016 blog published on a previous version of my website.

The joy of floating

Photos and text by Faye Bayko

As I watched Robert stride across the beach at Skaha Lake and walk straight in to the water without hesitating I found it hard to remember how afraid he was such a short time ago.

Goin’ swimming

Our first trip to Penticton together was the long weekend of July 2008.  I was looking forward to some beach fun but after a long, hot drive from our home in Calgary, Robert revealed that he had not brought his swim trunks.  We spent an hour searching the stores in Penticton for a pair that would fit him but were unsuccessful.  So, when we pulled in to the parking lot next to Skaha Lake beach I was hot and grumpy.  Robert announced that he would happily sit in the shade while I enjoyed the beach.  That’s when I lost my temper.

“I’m not being with another man who sits in the shade while I’m in the sun,” I yelled as I got out of the KIA and walked around to where Robert was now standing beside the open passenger door.  I reached past him to open the cubbyhole of the vehicle and extracted the Leatherman I kept there.

Robert did what he usually did when I got angry, he prepared to wait it out.  So, he was surprised when I sprung the Leatherman open, pulled the little scissors from where their slot next to the other mini-tools, and dropped to my knees.

“What?” Robert choked out the word, his leg jerking back to release my grip.

“If we can’t find trunks to fit, we’re going to make some,” I shouted. “Because, you’re coming in the water with me!”

When the material from both severed pant legs had dropped to his ankles, I told him to take his shoes off and step out of the discarded cloth.

“Now, we’re going swimming,” I announced.

The reason the memory is so difficult for me now is that at the time I had no idea of the leap of faith I was asking Robert to make.  I was selfishly focused on wanting to enjoy a weekend of water, sand, and sun.  I did not realize we were about to embark on a steep learning curve that would teach us both the meaning of freedom.

One toe at a time

That learning curve was what prompted me to meet up with Susan Flanagan, coordinator of member services at BC Blind Sports & Recreation, to discuss what it takes to introduce the blind and visually impaired to a sport, such as swimming.

“I’ve known adults who were terrified of water because they’d had a bad experience, or they were never exposed to it,” she explained during an interview at the Bamboo Cafe in Vancouver.

Flanagan, who, like Robert, has 10 percent vision, but, unlike Robert, has always been into sports, spent the past 23 years working with blind and visually impaired members of BC Blind Sports, introducing them to a variety of sports. “Being visually impaired myself, I don’t understand what it’s like to be totally blind.  I don’t think anybody does. But I learned from them how to assist people. There’s no course that tells you how to work with someone who’s blind. There’s no magic right or wrong rule. You just have to work with them and find out what works best,” she said.

What she learned was to break the task down and to spread the introduction over time. “I’ve done that with ice skating. I’ve done it with running. I’ve done it with many different sports.”

She explained that on a first trip to a public pool when introducing a member to the sport of swimming, for example, they wouldn’t necessarily get in the water.  “We’d just walk around the water, dip our toes in, and then be on our way.”

The walk around the pool would give the member a sense of the space and sound of the pool environment, while the toe-dip would provide tactile feedback.  By keeping the first visit simple and quick, trust is built between herself and the member.  “You don’t like everyone you meet, and you don’t trust everyone you meet.  For somebody who’s blind or visually impaired, I think they have to be a little more aware of who they can trust, and who they can’t.”

Taking it to the lake

For Robert and I Penticton would become all about trust.  Not only did my naive impatience strip Robert of his pant legs, it pushed him onto a beach he wasn’t prepared to walk on bare footed.

Without the protection of shoes, and with only 10 percent vision, Robert slowed almost to a halt when he came to the sand. I, not knowing at the time anything about how low-vision people process information, thought he was being ridiculous and rudely challenged him to pick up the pace. It wasn’t until we’d set up the lawn chairs and were sitting in them that he explained why he went so slow. His feet were reacting to the unevenness and shifting of the sand by sending signals to his brain that he was going to fall over, but his eyes, which saw only a common blurred colour and no depth, were unable to determine whether there was a danger of tipping.

I felt like a heel. Once he explained what was happening, his behaviour made sense.

After that we took it slow. When we walked across the sand to the water, I let him choose the pace and he used me for balance. This experience provided him with a surprising insight.

“When I was holding your hand or arm, I could feel your movements and I could adjust,” he said. “When I was with friends on the two other trips I’ve made to a beach, I wasn’t hanging on to them, so I didn’t realize that they would’ve been adjusting too.”

The idea that others had difficulty walking on sand was new to Robert. That knowledge somehow made him feel not so different.

Water world wonder

The lack of awareness of other’s reactions to the environment by those who are visually impaired is nothing new to Flanagan. “When you (as a sighted person) walk in to a pool, the water gets deeper and deeper. You notice the levels of the water. You see others in the water (enjoying it) and the relation of the water height on their bodies. Someone with low, or no, vision doesn’t see that. They have to be taught it.”

And, that is exactly what Flanagan does. She allows those who are visually impaired the opportunity to explore their environment and discover how they fit in to it. Flanagan gave the example of Nika Najafi, 13, who she introduced to swimming as well as skating. When Nika was four years old she wanted to ice skate like her older, sighted brother. Nika’s mother wanted to place her directly in to formal lessons but Flanagan persuaded her to try a slower introduction to the sport.

“(Nika) maybe had three percent vision and knew that skating was something different, that it took place on ice, but she had never been on a skating rink before.”

Flanagan’s plan involved a bit of back-stage work. First, she gave the girl a skate to touch and explore so she would understand that it was not going to be like putting on a pair of shoes. She then brought her to the edge of the rink, so she would understand what she would be using the skates for.

“Her first instinct was to lie down and bring her face down to the ice,” Flanagan said. While this behaviour may have shocked some, Flanagan argued that it was only a natural way for a child to explore a new environment. “You know how kids bring their toys to their face? That was her instinct, to lie down and bring it to her face.”

Once Nika understood what the ice surface was like, the concept of skating started to make sense.

The basic parts of sport instruction are the same, whether the person is sighted, or not. Where the difference arises, Flanagan stresses, is in spatial awareness. While a sighted person would have seen how long and wide the rink was, Flanagan had to physically show Nika. “She got used to the length of the rink because I would take her around and around, and then cut across.”

After a series of visits to the rink over a year, Nika became comfortable enough to enroll in regular skating classes.

“Because of Susan’s understanding and patience, she helped me feel comfortable on the ice and in the water,” Nika said after learning of this interview.

The repetitive visits were the key to Nika’s success, explained Flanagan. She went on to reference the work of Dr. Lauren Lieberman, considered an expert in the physical education of the blind and visually impaired. “Lieberman says that it takes a blind child an average of eight times of trying something before they get the concept.”

This is not a reflection of the child’s intellectual ability, Flanagan stressed, but rather a reflection of how humans learn. “It’s a visual thing. We, as sighted people, learn a great deal visually.”

For those introducing the blind and visually impaired to sports, this translates into the use of consistent, descriptive verbal cues, and being comfortable with physically manipulating their client’s body.

“Think of teaching a kid who’s blind to do a jumping jack. You would have to physically move their legs and arms (because they’d never seen what it looked like). Then they’d have to try it many times before they got the concept of what a jumping jack is.”

If instructors or clients are not comfortable with that level of physical contact, Flanagan suggests a form of physical braille. “If I’m holding a golf club, for example, I would get the child to feel where my hand is and how I’m holding the golf club.”

The child would then mimic the positioning, using his or her own golf club.

No matter the sport, Flanagan recommended keeping it real. She gives the example of teaching basketball. “One of the things I’ve seen is a teacher do is to get a bouncy ball and a garbage can and let the kids shoot (the ball) in to the can.” The trouble with that, she said, was that when the kid becomes a teenager and claims to his friends that he can shoot baskets, the result is embarrassment when the peers discover the difference in action.

“Teach the kids the proper sport, to dribble the ball, to throw, and to shoot. Put the basket up where it should be and teach him (her) the rules.” She believes that it’s more important for the child to understand the concept than to successfully score.

Splishin’ and a splashin’

At the time of Robert and my first trip to Penticton beach in 2008, I was unaware of Flanagan’s process, or BC Blind Sports. I wish I had known. Instead, I had only my experience as a parent and my desire to have Robert enjoy the water as much as I did.

One of the first things Robert and I discovered that first trip was how much he didn’t want to appear different from anyone else enjoying the beach. That fear kept him from taking the time to really see his environment. “The reflection of the sun on the water made it had for me to tell where I was going or how deep it was, so I’d stop and try and see through the water. But then I’d think everyone was staring at me,” he explained during a later discussion over coffee. “Like, ‘What’s that big oaf staring at in the water?’”

To overcome Robert’s need to stare, yet not be stared at, we purchased a rubber tube and an inflatable mattress for our second day on the beach. Robert was not comfortable climbing onto either one, so I climbed on one and he pushed me around in the water. To people on the beach we were just another couple spending time together in the water. When Robert needed to stop and get his bearings (stare in to the water) it just looked as if we were stopping to talk. The floater also provided him with the confidence to go further away from the shore, in to deeper water.

“When we got to the water, part of it was you egged me on, but at the same time there was the trust,” Robert said. “I was still, at times, not sure of the depth, thinking, ‘Is this deeper than I think it is?’ and I’d scare myself. But when we were out there you were distracting me. You were having fun, and I got to a chance to explore.”

Watching an adult learn to play in the water is surprisingly intimate. My son had been a water baby, so I’d never seen anyone overcome a fear of water before; nor explore it in such a tactile way, as Robert began to do. It made me want to not only protect what we discovered in Penticton but to recreate it over and over.

Protecting the trust

The need to slow things down has provided Robert and I with the opportunity to enjoy our time at the beach, but it has created another problem for us. Penticton is a wonderful place to meet up with friends for a wine-tasting holiday and the tone of such a trip is quite different than our beach trips. So, to protect our time at the beach, Robert and I have had to separate our trips in to two categories: private trips we take for water play, and those we make for social adventures with friends.


About Author

Faye Bayko
I am a writer and photographer currently working out of Port Alberni, BC.