Recognizing the need for comprehensive rehabilitation for soldiers who were blinded in World War II, the Department of Veterans Affairs, VA, established the profession of Blind Rehabilitation as we know it today. Those early pioneers, many of them veterans themselves, understood that blind rehab could not be just about so-called lifestyle adjustments such as the independent living skills of braille and cane travel. To be truly comprehensive, a rehab program needed to be “re-creative,” and, yes, that meant placing the patient in challenging and competitive environments. VA, where I work, introduced the game of goalball in the United States shortly after World War II. Almost forty years later, I was the happy beneficiary of that work. I was introduced to the game just a year and four months after becoming blind.
I write about the wondrous power of competition and team sports to bring out the best in individuals who have been laid low by the sudden trauma of blindness. These men and women discover not only the hidden depths of their capabilities, but for many of these newly-blind the sport of goal ball offers them their first experience of working with others in a real, immediate, and deeply human context. Many will tell you the game heightened their other senses, and offered a visceral experience of community and, thus, the one thing they so desired. Hope.
This is an excerpt from Chapter 15. The events described in this chapter occurred my first day on campus.
I moved hesitantly into the cavernous gym, listening to the banter of the people within and wondering what the heck I was doing there. How could a bunch of blind people play a competitive game? I trailed around the wall of the gym with my cane and stopped when I was in what, I figured, was about the midpoint. At that moment I heard a woman’s voice call my name.
“Hi, you must be Sue. Paul told me that you might be coming.” She told me her name and I promptly forgot it. My attention was focused on the center part of the gym. I could hear a ball being rolled from side to side in front of me. The ball apparently had bells in it as I could hear them jingle each time the ball moved. It had become unnaturally quiet in the gym. I wondered about this until it dawned on me that, of course, it had to be quiet. How else could the players hear the movement of the ball? Observing the rule of silence I held my questions until the players took a break. The person who had introduced herself to me called to Paul who came over to the side of the gym.
“I’ll take a pass on this next game and see if I can explain it to you,” he said, sounding slightly winded. We withdrew from the immediate vicinity of the court and sat down. “Oh, wait a minute,” Paul continued. “Dinah, hup!” he called out. Wondering what in the world he was talking about it immediately came clear when a dog ran up to him with much jingling of harness and leash. Paul had a guide dog. I hadn’t even realized it when we were in his office. “Walk with me outside,” he said, “I need to get Dinah out for a few minutes.”
I took up my cane and followed him. It was easy to follow the clicking of Dinah’s claws on the gym floor and the jingle of her harness. In about two seconds they were so far ahead of me that I almost had to run to catch up. “Do you always move that fast or does Dinah have to go really bad?” I asked, panting slightly.
“Nah,” said Paul, “This is just our normal pace.” Coming to a halt on a spot of grass, I heard Paul say to Dinah, “Okay, park time, Dinah dog.” While Dinah circled around Paul, he asked, “Did you learn the route from French to Sangren?”
“Yes,” I replied. “It’s not too bad. Dave’s a good teacher, too. Will he be able to help me with orientation to other places like stores and stuff?”
“Oh yes. He’s a second semester O&M student and he’ll be able to work with you as much as you like. Let’s just sit down out here so we can talk without worrying about interrupting the next game.
Paul then described the game of goalball. “There are three players on each team,” he began. “Everybody is blindfolded so that we’re all on the same visual footing. The court is laid out on the floor using either ropes that are taped down or some other tactually discernible way. The court’s about the size of a volleyball court. There’s a box on either end and players have to stay inside that box. The box is outlined by the ropes and it has short orientation lines that run into the middle of the box so you can keep track of where you are.”
As Paul paused for breath I asked, “How can you feel the ropes? I mean, can you feel them through your shoes and stuff?”
“Oh yeah, you’ll definitely be able to feel them through your shoes, although many players play on their knees and feel the ropes through their knee pads and with their hands.”
“Knee pads,” I began.
“Yep, most of us wear knee and elbow pads and most of the women wear hip pads as well,” Paul continued, “It’s a pretty rough game.”
Startled, I said, “How is it rough? I mean, how do you play it?”
I heard the smile in Paul’s voice as he continued, “Well, you heard the bells in the ball, right? The object of the game is to roll the ball down the court and get it past the opposing team and over the back line. If the ball’s coming at you, you have to listen until you think you know where it is and then try to block it by throwing yourself across the floor into the path of the ball.” Anticipating my next question, he said, “The center plays towards the front of the goal box and the two wings play back a little. That way we don’t crash into each other when we’re trying to block the ball.”
“Oh,” was all I could say.
Come on,” Paul said, “Let’s go watch a game.” And off we went, back into the gym.
We reentered the gym. I could hear the sound of the ball being rolled back and forth between the two teams. Paul was right, the ball was moving very fast. I could also hear the sound of people crashing to the floor as they tried to block it. What I couldn’t understand was that the players would occasionally call each other’s name. Then I’d hear someone slap the floor followed by the sound of the ball being rolled a very short distance. “What’s happening when they call each other’s names?” I whispered to Paul.
“That’s how the players pass the ball back and forth to each other,” Paul replied. “Sometimes you’re out of position when you catch the ball and it’s quicker to pass it to a teammate rather than trying to get up and oriented so you can throw the ball yourself.” I listened to the players interacting with one another and the sound of the ball as it zipped down the court. There also seemed to be a referee. He blew his whistle sometimes and I soon figured out that one blast of the whistle meant the ball had gone out of bounds and two quick blasts meant that someone had scored a goal.
“Okay,” came Paul’s voice next to me. You’ll play in the next game. Go straight down the gym, along the wall that’s to your right and you’ll walk right into the women’s locker room.”
When I came back from changing into sweats, the current game was over. Paul helped me find knee, elbow, and hip pads. Then he showed me how to position my body when I tried to block the ball. “You’ll want to have your head back with your arms held straight up and in front of your face. Go ahead, lie on your side and I’ll show you.”
Then I was on the court with Vicki and Kathy. I was playing right wing, Kathy was center, and Vicki was playing left wing. Knowing that I would be diving across the floor to block the ball I decided to play on my knees at first. I figured I wouldn’t have as far to go to hit the floor. The referee called, “Ball in play,” and we began. It took a lot of concentration. I had to keep track of my position on the court, the speed and direction of the ball, and the location of my teammates. It was wild and fast, but I was doing it. I was playing a competitive sport again.
I played in two games that evening. Then we all went out to dinner. It didn’t matter that we were all hot and sweaty and more than a little disheveled. All that mattered was that I had found friends and a new sport that I could play. Without having attended a single class, I decided that I was going to love graduate school.