Working with blind or visually impaired students

I received an inquiry from Sensei Cris in New Jersey:

I’m wondering if any of the instructors out there have worked with blind/visually impaired students. We have been asked if we can teach a six year-old who is blind, and we are exploring the possibilities.

I’ve been aware over the years of adult martial artists with visual impairments training successfully in various schools and styles. Working with a 6-year-old would pose different challenges. This inquiry got me wondering how I would handle it.

Undoubtedly, there are instructors out there well-trained and experienced with this issue. Any suggestions?

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11 Comments on “Working with blind or visually impaired students”

  1. Ricki Kay Says:

    I have not worked with any blind individuals. I have worked with 1000’s of kids. I would first meet with the child and find out if there are any other impairments, why does he want to take karate, or is it just the parents? what goals does the child have and what goals do the parents have? After making the assessment I would have the child come to the dojo separately to get a feel for the place, helping him around. Then I would assign my best assistant as his “buddy” for the entire class. I believe it could work. There would be a lot of obstacles to overcome each day, but with an open mind, open heart and open arms for all involved it could work.

  2. Mark Brandenburg Says:

    While I haven’t trained a blind student, I did recently test a blind student (I’ll call her Sara) for her first test (1-green stripe in Cuong Nhu). She was a teenager and legally blind. I was informed by her instructor before the test of her blindness. To accommodate her, I placed her in the front right side of the class as we lined up so she only had students to her left and behind her instead of completely surrounding her. I did this more so the other students wouldn’t run into her because of their potential lack of awareness (they also were taking their first test). I was very impressed with the Sara’s skills and while she did confide in me at the beginning of the test to being nervous, she performed very well–no different from the other students.

    Of course Sara is a teenager; it would probably be a different story with a 6-year-old but I expect that the younger student would do just as well as the other students if the visual impairment is something the student has had since birth. If it were a recent blindness, it might take more attention to assist the student. Since I actually did not teach the student, I can’t offer first-hand knowledge but if the student is excited and motivated he/she will excel I’m sure. It will certainly help raise the other students awareness of their surroundings (I expect the 6-year-old is quite attuned to her surroundings already).

    • redwoodojo Says:

      Mark, maybe Sara’s instructor would have some useful advice. Could you share the link to this discussion with him or her? Or let me know who they are so I can send the link?
      Thanks for commenting.

  3. redwoodojo Says:

    Here’s an interesting link:

    A whole collection of news items and stories about blind martial artists, and info about a book called “Blind Zen” that sounds quite interesting.

    • Chris B Says:

      Wow! I’m already glad that I submitted this question!

      Thanks for the link, Didi! I have spent a total of a couple of hours this week googling and surfing this question and I somehow missed this link!

      Mark – I would definitely appreciate an introduction to “Sara”s instructor. Was this in CN?

      Ricki – Thanks for your insight as well. My teaching team and I have asked some of the same questions, and will integrate several of your suggestions. The student has not yet decided if he wants to try, but during his visit to our class next week, we will see what happens. Thanks!

  4. Ron Thomas Says:

    Along with Lou and Mike, I also teach our legally blind student in Tallest Tree. She is not a teenager but is a grad student in Chemistry. She is totally blind in one eye and has extremely limited vision in the other. In spite of this, she gets around very well without the use of a cane or any type of guide. Because she is a grad student she responds very well to verbal instructions. It is good for us as instructors to have to be very precise in our verbal description of techniques for her, because that precision is of benefit to all our students. I also do some hands-on correction of body and limb position with her, but again that is something I also do for sighted students. She learns very quickly, enjoys the opportunity for a physical workout and to learn the art and discipline of Cuong Nhu, and has been welcomed into the fellowship of our dojo. On top of her blindness, she is from a Middle Eastern background in which her family is not at all supportive of a woman doing martial arts or many other independent things that she is doing in her life, so she is an inspiration in a number of ways. I will try to add more later if anyone is interested, and also try to get Mike and/or Lou to add their insights.

  5. Chris B Says:

    Thank you all for your input! I thought you might be interested in an update. Our new student CJ, showed up today…(I wasn’t totally sure he would.)

    After a pre-class conference, we started him off on one-to-one with Erin, one of my senior assistants. Today’s goals were to help CJ get acclimated to the dojo (which is half of a huge gym, not a great environment for someone dependent upon hearing), get to know his instructor and build not only trust, but the begining “language”, both of touch and sound, that would enable him to integrate in the class.

    Using the suggestion of a former student, we actually had CJ start by joining his instructor on a small gym mat and they spent a lot of time working on techniques sitting and kneeling at first.

    It was thought that this would provide a more stable begining, since we’d noticed that CJ might struggle with balance. Once the fear of tripping or losing balance was removed, he seemed relaxed and receptive.

    Using a combination of clear verbals and kinesthetic feedback, Erin worked with him on the basic blocks and punches; first from sitting, then kneeling, then standing positions.

    They made an excellent start, and (as I try to do with all new students) they established the expectation that the dojo is a safe learning environment and that Karate is both fun and doable. Many more lessons to go, but I thank you all for your input.

  6. john baxter Says:

    Working with a student who is blind will be a super learning experience for everyone! It will make you a better “teacher.” Use tactiles for locating embusan, sound such as a small bell to help locate direction and, of course, voice guide until student knows move and Kata. With a student who is blind you will need to use touch direction to move their limbs so they learn what the movements are to the command eg. zumo, hariatoshi.
    Students who are blind, severe low vision are just kids/students with the same behaviour expectations in the Dojo as any other student. Some adjustment for lack of vision of course but don’t accept “bad” behavour because the student is blind. Treat them the same as they are the same.
    I have had the honour of teaching children who are blind for over 30 years and karate is something they can do, learn and enjoy the same as any other of your students. I am also learning karate [ Go Ju] and just earned my Brown belt. Oh I am also 67.
    If I can be of any support to you please get in touch.

  7. Hi, I am Sensei Mike. I run specialist classes for the blind and visually impaired, and have deaf/blind students too. It would be good to share experiences with like-minded Instructors.

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