The Competitive World of Blind Sports

From casual recreation to the Paralympics, a growing number of programs are helping visually impaired people flex their athletic muscles.

Students compete in the 75-yard dash during the annual Eastern Athletic Association for the Blind track and field tournament in 2015. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

When the gun goes off, a slight young girl with a shock of white hair bursts off the starting line. Her legs pump harder as she picks up speed, eventually outpacing her competitors as she sprints furiously towards the finish line. There’s just one problem: She can’t see it.

“I didn’t even know when I was done,” recalls Pam McGonigle. “I just ran.” McGonigle, now in her 40s, has albinism, a rare genetic condition where the body doesn’t produce normal pigment, and has been legally blind since birth (vision problems are a common side effect of albinism). But her lack of vision didn’t stop her from competing against her sighted peers as a cross-country runner in middle school. And it didn’t stop her from being recruited to her high-school track team after the coach recognized her raw ability.

As a high-school student, McGonigle ran unassisted, and often had to slow her pace so she could run next to her teammates; otherwise, she risked running into trees. It wasn’t until she was training for the 1992 Paralympics that she got a guide runner, a sighted person who leads a blind runner along the course.

A generation of visually impaired athletes like McGonigle have proven their ability to compete in a variety of sports—from running to bowling to soccer—but in many ways, the challenges she faced as a child still loom as large as ever. Being blind too often comes with an assumption of being incapable, and never being given a chance to prove otherwise. Rather than integrate visually impaired children with their sighted peers for sports, schools often pull them out of physical education to sit in the library and work.

“A lot of times, the teachers are afraid of liability and the kids are excluded,” says Lauren Lieberman, a professor of physical education at the State University of New York, Brockport, who teaches future P.E. instructors how to adapt sports for kids with disabilities. “But once they do [that with] sports, they can generalize that to other things.”

Lieberman, who runs a sports camp for visually impaired kids called Camp Abilities, says that while athletic success can help campers grow their self-confidence, the social aspect might be just as important: “Most of the kids don’t have any friends who are visually impaired at their school.”

“The most they get out of it is socialization,” agrees Sandy White, the sports administrator of Pennsylvania’s Blind Sports Organization, which organizes games for visually impaired kids and adults. White, who’s been involved in blind sports for more 40 years, recalls one year when the organization’s weekend sports camp was struggling to get participants. He sent out an email to participants and their families asking that everyone bring a friend to camp—sighted, blind, it didn’t matter. “I got a bunch of emails back from parents,” he says, “and they all said the same thing: ‘My child doesn’t have any friends.’”

Visually impaired children today are often “mainstreamed,” meaning that they attend regular public schools and receive the accommodations they need in order to keep up. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which was signed into law in 1990, mandates that students are educated in the “least restricted environment,” meaning that if a visually impaired student can get along in a regular school setting, he or she is ineligible to receive funding to attend a special school for the blind.

Practically speaking, it also means that a visually impaired child may be the only one at their school—but athletes say that integration is valuable in helping young people to physically and socially adapt to a sighted world. “At the end of the day, you don’t live in the blind world,” says Jen Armbruster, a veteran Paralympian. “You live in the sighted world.”

James Mastro, who has medaled in four sports at the Paralympics, agrees. “I’m not different, I’m just blind,” he says. “I figured out a long time ago that I wasn’t going to have anyone tell me I couldn’t do something.”

It’s a common theme among visually impaired competitive athletes: They’re determined to prove that very little is beyond their reach.

“Besides driving a car, there’s nothing I can’t do,” says Scott Hogwood, a champion blind athlete in multiple sports. He lost his vision in his 30s due to a progressive disease called retinitis pigmentosa, which causes the retina to slowly degenerate. Still, he can bowl a 268—better than most sighted people. He’s also played in the World Series of beep baseball, a surprisingly violent sport in which players hit a ball thrown by a sighted person, then sprint towards a base that looks more like a punching bag propped upright. The base beeps to let the runner know where it is, and instead of sliding smoothly, the players launch themselves head-on into it.

Many sports for the visually impaired involve similar full-body contact. In a game called Goalball, for example, one player hurls what looks like a kickball by spinning around and launching it at the opposing team’s broad goal, which spans the width of the volleyball-sized court. The three defending players crouch on all fours, ready to fling themselves in front of the oncoming ball, which emits a cheerful jangling sound as it sails through the air. At the Paralympic level, the ball travels more than 40 miles per hour.

“It’s hard to recruit people because you have to throw yourself around and get hurt,” says Armbruster. She had played basketball for years with severe visual impairment through the support of her sighted teammates, who would help her line up for free throws by kicking her feet into place. Once it became too difficult to play basketball, she turned turned to goalball.

Recruitment for goalball and other blind sports often depends on unofficial tactics like word of mouth —but that strategy has made it difficult for many blind sports teams to survive. About 7.3 million people in the United States have some kind of visual impairment, 2.9 million of whom are over the age of 65. That means a blind person may not know anyone else who has a visual impairment, much less one who wants to get banged up a regular basis.

“Getting people is always a challenge,” says Rob Weissman, who runs a beep-baseball team called the Boston Renegades. He attributes his own teams’ recruiting success to luck—a few team members work in the blind community, which makes it much easier to find new people. But getting players to stick around, he says, is more about helping them feel empowered as athletes. “The common misperception that people have about anyone with a disability is that they need to be coddled,” he says. “That’s something that a lot of our players like, that we don’t treat them any differently.”

That sense of community can be critical, because mainstreaming makes it difficult to get people involved at a young age. “The biggest barrier is finding those kids,” says Armbruster. “It’s great that they’re mainstream, but it’s hard to find them.” And without sports teams outside of school, blind children often don’t get those normal childhood experiences.

“They didn’t grow up with the Little League mentality,” says White, and since many of them are too shy to get involved on their own, they stay at the fringe. “Most of the time they say they’re ignored by the sighted kids.” That leaves a lot up to the parents, who can be so protective of their visually impaired children that they have to be persuaded to let them play sports.

It was precisely that problem that first inspired White to get involved with blind sports. As a swim coach in the 1970s, he says, he was approached by a young blind girl who wanted to take swim lessons. He worked with her for years, helping to persuade her mother of the girl’s abilities, and eventually followed her to the U.S. Nationals in swimming as her coach.

White, like the Paralympic athletes themselves, has watched awareness of blind sports rise over the years. A cumulative 3.4 billion people watched the London 2012 Paralympic games, up by nearly a billion from the Beijing 2008 games. Today’s visually impaired kids are growing up with athletic examples like Armbruster and Mastro. They’re afforded opportunities not given to their parents’ generation. Gradually, the world of sports is opening itself up to them.

“Society as a whole has a low expectation for people with visual impairments,” Lieberman says. “Role models are slowly changing that impression.”