Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Fencing program for blind people in Uruguay builds confidence

From AFP. In the picture, fencing instructor Franco De Caria (L) gives guidance to a blind pupil.

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — "Point," cried the instructor, signalling a contact between blind fencing opponents as the clanging sounds of clashing swords rang out around a unique rehabilitation center.

Marisol Mariani, 39, has suffered blindness since birth but that doesn't stop her lunging decisively, wielding her sabre and maintaining proper posture as she prepared another attack.

In a first for South America, the Tiburcio Cachon facility here is teaching fencing to people stricken with blindness or who have severely impaired vision.

Mastery of the sword games have proven invaluable as a way to improve the patient's spacial awareness, confidence and use of a walking stick.

"At first I was afraid because I didn't know if I was going to get hit, or if I was going to hurt the other person," Mariani said, before pointing out how fencing is "a very safe sport -- you have clothing, masks... which gave me confidence that nothing (bad) would happen."

During classes even those with impaired vision are further handicapped with masks so they cannot see at all, to be on the same playing field as the blind.

The initiative has been a hit at the public Tiburcio Cachon, which provides rehabilitative services to some 40 people. It was brought here by mobility instructor Maria Goldstein who discovered the approach while working for eight years at the renowned Carroll Center for the Blind in the United States.

"I thought they were crazy!" she told AFP. "But then I began to understand why."

Being practiced in the art of fencing can mean so much to people with sight problems, she said, as it helps them become more aware of their surroundings.

"When a person is fencing they are moving in a linear motion, so they fall forwards or backwards, not sideways," Goldstein said. "So then, when you're walking in the street, you encounter objects, obstacles, and you have to react."

Arriving in Uruguay in February, Goldstein managed to persuade health authorities to endorse a pilot scheme at the center. The hardest part was finding a fencing teacher in a country not known for its love of the sport.

An Internet search however turned up Franco De Caria, an accomplished fencer with a number of championships under his belt, who agreed to join the project without pay.

"I think they are enjoying it," De Caria enthused to AFP. "They were a bit afraid when they started, but we've seen progress... more independence."

Confidence is the most important lesson an instructor can teach, he said.

The sport can bring "self-esteem, confidence, security and the sense that they are accomplishing something that many people have not, like practicing fencing," he said.

"A blind person tends to stay at home, in the dark; they don't go out for a coffee, but when a fencer goes out on the street, they have a social life they never had before, they have confidence in all social situations."

Another fencer, 40-year-old Jeannette Suarez, started to lose her vision two years ago, and picked up the sport at Tiburcio Cachon over the last few months.

"The instructor teaches you to visualize the other person and everything becomes easier," she raved of the program, which she admitted was at first quite odd but has since become more natural, with practice.

For now there are six participants in the once-a-week classes, which are a small part of the center's focus on daily living with the disability, but teachers and pupils alike are hoping it will be included as part of a unique rehabilitation curriculum.