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Sports: A Vehicle to Disability Advocacy

Introduction

Last week I introduced you to Blind Beauty Eliana Mason. Today, in her Women On the Move article, you’ll learn more about how she became a fierce sports competitor. A Disability Advocate in the making, I can see Eliana changing perceptions about visual impairment through her love of sports.

It’s not easy living “in-between” (not fully sighted, not fully blind). Like a vast number of conditions, visual impairment/blindness is a spectrum. None of us “see” the same, even those who have the exact same condition. We all “see” differently and whatever residual sight we possess impacts day to day living.

Visual Impairment & The Public

Peru 2019 Calahan & Eliana
Peru 2019 Calahan & Eliana

When I was born the doctors thought I was completely blind. I have underdeveloped eyes along with congenital glaucoma and cataracts. At just 9 days old I underwent surgery to remove my lenses. However, because my eyes were not fully developed the doctors were unable to complete the procedure, and my lenses were not replaced. This resulted in me having very limited vision in my right eye and only light perception in the left.

People always ask me “what can you see?” I find this difficult to answer because I was born with my eyes this way. All I can see is all I have ever known, therefore it makes comparison almost impossible. One big frustration I have is that most people don’t realize what it means to be visually impaired. Our brain wants to quickly categorize things and so others typically either think you are sighted or blind.

Visual impairment is a concept that confuses a lot of people and I have been accused of “faking” my disability. Who would even want to do that?

I get anxious using my cane because people have said to me “you are looking at your phone, why are you using that cane?” What they don’t understand is my font is HUGE, I have my screen zoomed and I am holding my phone right in front of my face. I want there to be more education on what it means to be visually impaired, and that no two individuals’ eye conditions are the same.

I want to feel confident and empowered using my cane, a tool meant to help me. However, often I am nervous due to the stigma and reactions by other individuals. It is my goal to be a disability advocate and change the way disabilities and especially blindness is viewed.

Natural Born Competitor

Team USA Red Carpet 2016
Team USA Red Carpet 2016

I grew up as the middle child between two brothers. Thus, it was my mission in life to keep up with them in every way possible. They are to blame for my competitive, stubborn, determined, and assertive nature. You really have to be tough growing up with only brothers. I would get frustrated when I couldn’t keep up with them athletically due to my vision.

Growing up I led a very active lifestyle; I loved hiking, camping, skiing, and of course playing sports. I tried a variety of sports, including cheerleading, track, gymnastics, and soccer. While I loved them all my vision became a barrier to my overall success.

At 15 I was so excited to discover goalball, a sport I could excel in without having to compensate for my vision loss. It was the first time in my life that I felt like I could be an athlete first. I was able to focus solely on the sport, without making adaptations or accommodations for my visual impairment.

You may be wondering what goalball is? It is a Paralympic sport geared specifically for blind and visually impaired athletes. It was developed in WWII for blinded vets and is now played internationally around the world in over 200 countries. I highly suggest looking it up. I joke that it is a sport for blind individuals, however, the easiest way to understand it, is to watch a game. Goalball is unlike any sport you have ever heard of and has changed my life.

Taking Love Of Sports To A Higher Level

Lima 2019 Throwing Photo is described in the body of the post.
Lima 2019 Throwing Photo

Through sports, I have really developed a stronger sense of self. Competing with other athletes who share my visual limitations helps me see them as role models, not only in sports but in life. I felt like I was part of a community bigger than myself and it really improved my overall confidence and identity.

Sports have shaped me into the person I am today. Through playing a competitive team sport, I appreciate the hard work, dedication, failure, loss, success, perseverance, and extreme joy that comes with the game. These are skills I can take off the court and implement throughout the course of my life. I would be lost without the opportunity to compete in sports and am so thankful I found goalball.

At first, I enjoyed goalball because it was something new, accessible, and sports-related. However, something changed for me after competing for a year and I realized I wanted to try and make the Paralympic team. I knew this would take a lot of drive, determination, and sacrifice which I was ready to give. I made the 2016 Rio Paralympic team and helped Team USA win a bronze medal in the sport of goalball. While this was amazing I am hungry for more and am training fulltime to compete in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics with the overall goal of winning a gold medal. Training involves strength and conditioning, on the court practice, and nutrition.

Rio 2016 medal photo
Rio 2016 medal photo

Athlete Becomes World Traveler

Goalball has expanded my world, opportunities, experiences, confidence, and ability to navigate the world as a blind individual. I first started the game at 15 and am now 24. During this period of time I have been to:

Additionally, I’ve met other Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and had the privilege and opportunity to represent the USA on a world stage in the sport I love. I am currently living in Fort Wayne Indiana to train fulltime for goalball. We have our resident training center out here where we conduct on and off the court training five days a week. Having the opportunity to train with my team daily has exponentially increased our team’s skill and ability. I am so thankful to the City of Fort Wayne and Turnstone Center for Adults and Children with Disabilities for providing us with this experience.

It has been worth it to make the move in my life, however, it was honestly really scary to do so. Moving across the country away from my friends and family to an unfamiliar location was a very hard decision. I have grown a lot from this experience in my independence and have learned a lot about myself.

My boyfriend competes on the USA Men’s Goalball team. We are blessed that we get the opportunity to travel the world together and cheer one another on. Dating someone who shares my disability has taught me to be creative in how I do a lot of things. However, it has been really empowering to navigate the world together and teach others that we can accomplish anything we put our minds to.

Furthermore, I am a graduate student at Antioch University, aiming to achieve a Master’s in clinical mental health counseling. It is a passion of mine to work with children and families and I would ultimately love to specialize in disability counseling. I want to ensure that all families understand disabilities and know how to foster growth and independence in their children. A quote I really like (not sure where it comes from, I saw it written somewhere online) is “disability does not mean inability” this is how I live my life, and this is the message I am hoping to impart on the rest of society.

Lima 2019 medal photo
Lima 2019 medal photo

Image Descriptions:

  • Featured image – an action shot of Eliana playing goalball at the Para Pan American Games in Lima 2019. In this photo, she is on the ground blocking a goal shot from the opposing team.
  • Peru 2019 Calahan & Eliana – Lovely capture of Eliana’s boyfriend, Calahan (his right arm wrapped around Eliana), while standing in the arena in Lima 2019. Both are grinning as they are about to bite into their silver medals.
  • Team USA red carpet banquet in DC after the 2016 Rio games. Eliana is standing on the carpet wearing a red dress and gold sandals. Eliana has honey blonde hair just below her shoulders. She is wearing a bronze medal around her neck and behind her is a dark gray backdrop with the Team USA logo and logos of company sponsors.  
  • Another action shot of Eliana from the Para Pan American Games in Lima 2019.
  • A team photo on the medal stand from Rio 2016.
  • Another team photo on the medal stand from Peru 2019.
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Turning Fear Into Motivation For Change

Turning Fear Into Motivation For Change Featured Image description is in the body of the post.

Turning Fear Into Motivation For Change

Visual impairment and blindness is a deeply personal and individual experience. Some people are highly motivated to set goals and regain their independence immediately, while others take it one day at a time. 
Never forget, whatever stage you are in your journey, a compassionate team of vision professionals, O&Ms, and resources are always there to support and help VI people along the way.

~Amy Castleberry

Moving Forward In Spite Of Fear

#1 Amy Castleberry image description is in the body of the post.
#1 Amy Castleberry

You might think my classmates and professor were playing a vicious trick on me the day I was blindfolded. They led me around the winding corridors of my college campus until I was completely disoriented. Then they left me alone to my own devices.  In reality, it was the first lesson in my master’s degree training program as an orientation and mobility (O&M) graduate student. The first day of the rest of my life.

“I have no idea where I am,” I laughed nervously.

“You will,” my professor replied in a comforting and encouraging tone. “You have all of the tools you need. Just, use your cane.”

Did I mention two of my biggest fears are “the dark” and “getting lost”?

Fear is a funny thing we all confront at some moment in our lives. The nagging tic in the back of our brains, or the aching pit at the bottom of our stomachs. Fear can overwhelm in a flash of frustration and panic. Or, in a moment of enlightened courage, motivate us to actively change our circumstances and rise to the occasion.

#2 Salus University O&M cohort image description is in the body of the post.
#2 Salus University O&M cohort

So, what was I to do? I could stay stuck, remain literally in a corner, and give in to my fearful thoughts. Or, I could choose to move forward and continue moving until I eventually worked my way to my destination.

As I stood against the wall wracking my brain for my next move, I heard my professor’s voice: “You’ve got this. Take a deep breath, make a plan, be systematic.”

Easier said than done.

From Trainee To Trainer

About 30 minutes later I used my long white cane and worked myself out of the corner. I located the stairwell, walked up two flights of stairs, only to take a wrong turn, on the wrong floor. Trapped again, in another corner nowhere near my final destination.

“Not bad for your first time,” the professor said as I pushed away my blindfold. “We’ll have you crossing streets in downtown Philadelphia in no time.”

By the end of that month, my professor was right. I had all the tools I needed and I crossed my first street independently while blindfolded, then another, and then a whole intersection. Eventually, I worked my way through many other environments after that first intersection.

From parks with uneven terrain and dirt trails to riding public transportation in a congested center city. To taking escalators, exploring different departments in shopping malls, and my favorite lesson of all, training with guide dogs! When I wasn’t practicing cane navigation, I was learning to instruct my classmates. Lessons involved traveling systematically, safely, and independently while building their confidence and helping them achieve their goals.

Now, months later, I’m nearing the end of my fieldwork and I’ve worked with visually impaired (VI) children and adult clients. Next, I’ll be moving across the country to train at a Veteran’s Hospital with visually impaired members from our nation’s military.

Reflecting On The O&M Journey

Along the way, I’ve met incredibly diverse and unique people across the spectrum of blindness and VI. People who have welcomed me with patience, kindness, open hearts, and minds.

Thanks to Stephanae, I’ve enjoyed this opportunity to reflect on my experiences and training as an O&M graduate student, and my hope for the future.

Though I’ll never know what it’s like to live on a daily basis with a VI, I’ve learned some important things from my students and the generous VI community:

  1. VI and blindness is a deeply personal and individual experience.
  2. Some people are highly motivated to set goals and regain their independence immediately, while others take it one day at a time.
  3. The return to independence from VI is grueling, hard work. But the journey is supported by a relentless and compassionate team of: 
    • fellow VI community members,
    • vision professionals,
    • teachers,
    • technology professionals,
    • advocates, and
    • compassionate, creative, problem-solvers who are as deeply invested in helping our clients identify resources, overcome barriers to accessibility, and achieve their goals.

Life may never be the same, but quality of life can be enhanced through adaptation, creativity, and the emergence of innovative technologies.

#4 Guide Dogs image description is in the body of the post
#4 Guide Dogs

I am grateful to my classmates, professors, mentors, clients, students, and the VI community at large, for their patience and encouragement along the way. Though I know I will encounter barriers and systems that present challenges to my students and clients, I will always be a seeker and student, an advocate for equality and inclusion, and a warrior against fear in favor of love and light.

What’s Next?

In the coming year, I hope to find my place and purpose in this amazing community, and work hard to make a difference through passionate action. I look forward to serving the community in every and any way I can.

Many thanks to Bold Blind Beauty for allowing me to share my thoughts and experiences. Please reach out to me at any time, so we can connect and continue to educate, overcome barriers, fight for accessibility and independence, and continue to grow and learn as a team.

Connecting With Amy:

  • Instagram: @o.m.amy
  • Email: acastleberry.o.m@gmail.com

Featured Image Description:

This photo is a group of nine O&M students (including Amy) posing with white canes. There’s a Salus University sign on the floor that reads “Celebrating 10 Years.” A couple of students are holding the school’s mascot (Sal the Salamander) and others are holding school pennants. 

Additional Images:

  1. A closeup of Amy with a big smile and wearing dark-rimmed eyeglasses. Her blond hair parted in the center and she has on a black cold-shoulder top.
  2. Amy and five other Salus University O&M students are posed standing with white canes.
  3. Gallery of six photos:
    1. As part of her O&M training, Amy is approaching a set of escalators with her white cane as several onlookers watch. 
    2. Amy is standing on the upper level of a mall next to the railing with her white cane.
    3. This image is a couple of students doing O&M travel on the street.
    4. A photo of three people demonstrating O&M on a wooded pathway.
    5. Amy is kneeling next to a lovely dog who appears to be smiling. 
    6. A picture of Amy and four other students wearing white polos at Seeing Eye Guide Dog Training.
  4. Eight students (including Amy) are posing with three guide dogs. The three guide dogs are sitting on the floor with two students kneeling next to them while the others stand.