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Blind Athleticism at Ray-Benson Sno-Park

On Jan. 21, the North West Association for Blind Athletes held a snowshoe event. 

Taking place at Ray-Benson Sno-Park in Sisters, Oregon, volunteers came to provide support for the visually impaired on a snow-filled adventure. That day, there were a total of 10 people involved with staff members Ashley Kabza and Tara Rogowsky at the helm. 

Tara Rogowsky unloads NWABA-provided snowshoe equipment from the van. These items are offered to both the athletes and volunteer guides. [John Adair // Double Sided Media]

NWABA is a non-profit organization that was founded in 2007. It aims to provide physical recreational opportunities for blind and visually impaired individuals across the spectrum. According to NWABA, the association began by aiding just seven individuals at their start. By 2018-19 they were assisting at least 1,700 people across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. With funding through grants, fundraising action, and gifts they are able to host events that make over 15 different sporting activities available to the visually impaired. 

Tara Rogowsky, left, and Mike Thomas enjoy a conversation during their time trekking. Facilitating an understanding community and connections are among some of the associations desires. [John Adair // Double Sided Media]

Kabza has been with NWABA for less than a year, but holds a master’s degree in adaptive physical education. Her position within the association is a program specialist that tends to the Southern Willamette Valley area. Being able to create a community and connections with the athletes is what really drives her love for the job. 

“I’m really passionate about physical activities so being able to get out here and provide these outlets for activities is something I really enjoy”, she said. When asked which of the events is her favorite she specified paddle boarding, but generally loves any of the water sports.

On the other hand, Shana Newtown, 25, prefers the more grounded sport of goal ball — a sport invented for blinded and visually impaired veterans returning from war in the 1940s, and is now an official Paralympic sport. Newtown has been participating in NWABA events since 2013 and is one of the visually impaired who took part in the day’s snowshoeing trek. It was her first time and admitted that she felt “apprehensive” about it, but felt she had to take up the opportunity. In the end she was thrilled to have been a part of the event and found it to be a unique experience. Under the association, she has been involved in swimming, snowboarding, skiing, hiking, and more. 

Trekkers hike through the snow in a line formation while sporting high visibility bibs. Both of these measures are to ensure that no one is lost from the pack and to alert any other park attendees, especially those on motor vehicles. [John Adair // Double Sided Media]

When asked about addressing any misconceptions regarding the visually impaired and blind community playing sports, Newtown stressed that people need to understand that there is a spectrum — not everyone is totally blind. 

She was born with ocular albinism, making her sensitive to light, and also has nystagmus, which causes uncontrolled eye movement. She finds some sports, like soccer, to be frustrating because she isn’t on equal footing as some other players. But because goal ball is a sport that requires all players to be blindfolded she has taken to it much more than any other. It is for this reason that the sport is the most popular with the community.

Amongst the party members there was also a married couple — one a volunteer guide, one visually impaired.  Dylan Albattah-Thompson, 36, and husband Hajar Albattah-Thompson, have been volunteering on and off with the association for the last two years ever since his wife heard about them. What he enjoys most about his time with NWABA in general is learning more about not just how his wife sees but how differently the other athletes do, and how they deal with their visual limitations.

Married couple Hajar and Dylan Albattah-Thompson pause so that he can make adjustments to her snowshoes. Dylan became active with the association not only to help his wife get the physical activity she craved but to also learn more about how the visually-impaired interact with the world. [John Adair // Double Sided Media]

 “Some people just don’t realize how capable people are even though they’ve got a visual impairment”, he said. “There’s no reason [they] can’t do the same stuff. Like downhill skiing. I was like, ‘I didn’t even know that would be a thing’.” 

The volunteering position isn’t without its challenges though. As a guide it’s your responsibility to ensure your visually impaired partner knows what’s around them to help them become oriented to their space. 

Dylan said that having to describe surroundings can be difficult at times because it requires constant awareness of wording. Phrases like “Watch out for…” can more easily be thrown out without thinking when a more detailed description may be required. 

Another aspect to keep in mind when engaging with one of the athletes is having to make your presence known by greeting them and stating who you are, even if there have already been introductions. Part of the volunteer process for NWABA is to ensure that newcomers are aware of this by having them watch a video that goes over these details and others.
While some of the participants of the day were new to NWABA most were frequenters of their events. There’s something to be said about an association when those who they serve are willing to stick around for years, like Newtown. To find out how you can get involved visit their homepage at nwaba.org for more details on upcoming events.

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