Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators

Piercing the Veil: Creating Opportunities for Students with Visual Impairments

Piercing the Veil: Creating Opportunities for Students with Visual Impairments

By David George

On Sept. 15, Region 1 Education Service Center (ESC) and Weslaco ISD held a unique sporting event for students who are visually impaired and/or blind. The 2023 South Texas Visual Impairment Sports Palooza was designed to introduce popular sports to these students and give them a chance to participate in physical activities that would normally be inaccessible to those with limited vision.

Although the event focused on serving students, Region 1 ESC and Weslaco ISD also invited coaches, parents, teachers, and directors to give them a chance to see what resources were available to students who are visually impaired and how they could adapt certain sports to cater to their needs.

Susie Andrews is one of the event’s organizers, and she proposed the idea after learning about a similar event in Irving called the Blind Sports Extravaganza put together by Region 10 ESC and the Lions Club. Looking to share the same opportunities with students in her local area, Andrews worked tirelessly to create something special.

Over the past 34 years, Andrews has been a special education teacher, a general education teacher, and a teacher for students with visual impairment. In her second year at the Region 1 ESC, she serves as a special education specialist for visual impairments. However, Andrews still chooses to teach, as well as work as a Texas Tech University supervisor for new teachers.

“The best part of this job is that I’m still getting to work with kids—even if it’s indirectly,” Andrews says. “My goal has been to try to help teachers help their students and to be able to bring them together for these expanded core curriculum events.”

Andrews had previously worked with a student who was completely blind for the past six years, and she points to that relationship as a huge part of her motivation.

“He is an outstanding kid, but I would notice that he would often get left out and be on the sidelines,” Andrews says. “So I want to do everything I can to change that.”

A Hole in One

The 2023 South Texas Visual Impairment Sports Palooza incorporated a slew of modified sporting events, such as “beep baseball,” where the ball is larger than a regulation baseball and also makes a beeping sound whenever it is thrown so competitors can use the sound to locate and hit it in the air.

“It was so much fun to just watch that,” Andrews says. “It’s the simple things. Some of them had never even really thrown a ball, and they were getting to throw them to each other. Even family members joined in on some of the games.”

A similar concept was used for a soccer game. The ball had bells in it so participants could hear it coming and, in turn, be able to kick it. Noises were made near each goal so they could hear where to kick the ball.

Other events included an adapted obstacle course, a version of badminton with enlarged rackets known as “bashminton,” and even blind tennis, consisting of a smaller net and a ball with bells in it.

“It was just so much fun to watch the kids really getting into it,” Andrews says. “They were doing basic things at first, such as bouncing balls on their rackets, and after a while, some of them really got into it to figure out what they could do.”

The palooza even featured a young man from Vanguard Academy who recently went to Europe to compete in blind tennis at the international level who came to help teach the kids.

“He just graduated this past year, and when I reached out to him, he was so excited because he is visually impaired and understands how important inclusion can be for visually impaired students,” Andrews says. “He also knows how limited activities can be in school.”

Andrews says she knows of many more sports for the visually impaired—even archery—that could be incorporated into events like this one.

Stepping Up to the Plate

In a general education setting, many visually impaired students do not receive the same opportunities to participate in physical activities as their counterparts.

“This is partially because teachers get a little apprehensive,” Andrews says. “And sometimes the kids themselves feel like they just can’t do it. We just wanted the kids to have an opportunity to work with other kids because they are often the only one who’s visually impaired on their campus, so it’s nice for them to be able to meet other kids who are like them.”

At Region 1 ESC, Andrews has been putting together expanded core curriculum (ECC) events for students and their coaches from all over the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo, and the Brooks County area. She worked closely with Weslaco ISD and the district’s adaptive PE coach, who had attended the Blind Sports Extravaganza and wanted to incorporate what he had learned into the Sports Palooza.

“I was really grateful, of course,” Andrews says. “And between me, him, and some of our staff, it became a team effort to begin the research to put this together. The Texas Adaptive Play Initiative (TAPI) really helped us out with the three major events: the beep baseball, the blind soccer, and the goalball.”

Last year, Andrews and her team put together a talent show they called VI’s Got Talent. Again, her ex-student was the motivation.

“I remember taking him to the Texas School for the Blind for the first time ever, and while he was there, they had him in the dorms where there was a piano,” Andrews says. “He started fiddling with the piano, and by the end of the weekend he had taught himself how to play it just by listening. He later taught himself to play the accordion, and he’s been learning guitar as well.”

This gave Andrews the idea to showcase the many talents of visually impaired students in her region. Twenty-six students participated in the event with a combination of dancing, singing, playing instruments, and even performing comedy.

“They had a great time, and it brought them out of their shell because a lot of them were very shy,” Andrews says. “It went so well that this coming year, we’re going to have VI’s Got Talent Season 2.”

Andrews acknowledges that the Sports Palooza and the talent show were group efforts that would not have been possible without the help of so many people, including: her team at Region 1; TAPI; Weslaco ISD, which provided the venue as well as custodians and an athletic trainer; grocery store H-E-B, which donated $1,500 in gift cards for the food; volunteers from the local university who were students for adaptive PE; the Edinburg Lions Club; and ATPE Membership Specialist Roger Gutierrez, who volunteered as a judge for the talent show and donated tables and chairs for the sports event.

“It makes me so happy because now people are excited about helping our kids, and that’s been the best part of it,” Andrews says. “We even received help from a gentleman by the name of Cody Colchado, a 33-time world champion in powerlifting who was just inducted into the United States Association of Blind Athletes Hall of Fame. He was a big help, and it really did become a team effort. Once people heard what we were doing, they were very enthusiastic.”

Leveling the Playing Field

The Sports Palooza saw 60 students and over 100 adults participate, and if it weren’t for the heat, Andrews is convinced those numbers would have been higher. For the coaches in attendance, Andrews handed out modified balls for them to take back to their districts to use with their students.

“Part of it is inclusion, and part of it is the knowledge of what to do,” Andrews says. “For example, the coaches that came to the palooza are going to know what to do, but eventually their kids will go to another campus. Will the next coach have the same knowledge? That’s the hard part.”

But it isn’t just a lack of knowledge that holds students and coaches back. Andrews explains that it is also fear.

“Of course, we want to keep visually impaired students safe,” Andrews says. “But we do have parents who are afraid to let their kids get involved. They are afraid their child will fall or get hit by a ball. But we all fall, and we all hurt ourselves sometimes. That’s how we learn.”

Andrews would like to start a new tradition at Region One ESC by holding the Sports Palooza every year and giving students not only something fun to look forward to but also a goal to work toward throughout the year.

And the Crowd Goes Wild

Fifteen districts attended the 2023 South Texas Visual Impairment Sports Palooza, including Brownsville, San Benito, Rio Hondo, Santa Rosa, Raymondville, Weslaco, Mission, Edinburg, McAllen, Idea, Brooks County, Zapata, Sharyland, Triumph Public HS, and Harlingen ISDs.

Andrews recalls receiving positive feedback from parents at the event expressing their gratitude for what they felt was a unique and valuable experience for their kids. After the event, she asked each district in attendance which activity their students enjoyed the most and made sure to provide them with resources, including balls or rackets, to take to back to their schools.

“One of the teachers came up to me and told me that she had a student who did not want to come,” Andrews says. “He thought it was going to be like PE, and he hates that class. But once he figured out this was totally different, he really got into it. His favorite activity was tennis, so his parents told his teacher they were going to start playing tennis as a family with the special balls.”

The coaches who attended told Andrews they were interested in sharing these activities with all of their students. One volleyball coach was so impressed that she planned to get blindfolds for her students who are not visually impaired and have them practice by just listening for the ball. She told Andrews that she felt that not only could it improve their game, but also it would increase awareness for the visually impaired.

“We’re really just trying to get the kids out there and doing different things because there is so much struggle to learn—stuff that doesn’t come automatically to them,” Andrews says. “A lot of stuff we learn comes from visually taking in information. We see how people react to things, how they behave, and how they socialize—making eye contact and so forth.”

Andrews is currently putting together a winter gala where visually impaired students can socialize, participate in team building activities, and dance. She and her team are always looking for creative ways to encourage independence and interaction within the visually impaired community.

“The event was mostly designed to educate, but just seeing the smiles and watching the expressions on the kids’ faces change as they began playing, it turned out to be a great time for everyone,” Andrews says. “It was just awesome how it came together.”