Fencing for the blind or visually impaired

Photo: fencing.net Fencing for the Blind in Italy.

Once while skiing at Lake Tahoe, I stood there on the top of the mountain and was frightened to death of going down. Suddenly, a couple of skiers raced past me. I wondered how they were able to ski almost simultaneously with one another, as they were almost perfectly synchronized. Then I heard a clear voice command – “One-two-right! One-two-left!”  It was only then that I noticed the orange vests, one with ” instructor ” printed on the back and the second with “A blind skier” printed on it! OMG! This graceful young woman was blind and she made it down this top level track without seeing the road! Her way of feeling was built on the simple commands of the coach – ” One-two-right! One-two-left!” What a tough character, what an amazing spirit people with disabilities must have to overcome all the barriers and still DARE!! It was a triumph of the spirit of strength, courage and enthusiasm.

When I first heard about blind fencers, my reaction was much the same as it was that day on the slopes.  I found myself wondering, how is this even possible? Isn’t the estimation of distance, the timing, the tracking of your opponent’s little signs of intention vitally important  important? Don’t you have to be able to see to make that happen?

If you’re not familiar with fencing for the blind that  is happening right now in America, then get ready to be blown away.

The History of Blind Fencing

A fascinating fact about blind fencing is that it is a practice that goes back at least a hundred years! We have records of military rehabilitation specialists using blind fencing as a technique to help soldiers recover after World War I. A man named Professor Dubois taught soldiers who had been blinded in the war how to fence in order to help them recover and regain their autonomy after the war.

But he wasn’t the only one, as several news outlets reported on blinded soldiers being taught fencing in France after the war . In fact Gerald Ames, the famous British Olympic fencer, praised the work of these fencers! Here’s what he had to say about these fencers:

“Very few people if asked to suggest amusements for the blind would include fencing in a list of suitable recreations, but the idea is not so fantastic as it seems. The ‘feel of the blade’ and a kind of instinct which comes to a practised swordsman have always been surer guides to the intentions of an opponent than the eye, quick as this may be. Many wellknown fencers are quite short-sighted, and at best one’s vision is handicapped by the necessary strongly wired mask.”

The words of a world famous fencer that jump off the page after almost a hundred years. Truly amazing! It’s important to note here that this was considered to be truly innovative at the time, and that so many people were wanting to create a better life for the many wounded soldiers after the war. Fencing was a natural way to make that happen!

Today there are clubs all over the United States who offer programs for blind fencers. This isn’t some thing that’s happening in just one place, but in many difference places all over.

How Blind Fencing Works

Before moving forward, it’s really important to point out here that there aren’t “rules” or “regulations” for blind fencing. Clubs that offer blind fencing tend to do it out of passion and advocacy, making their way as they see fit and using what works. The bottom line – these aren’t rules! Just ideas.
The weapon of choice for blind fencers tends to be the foil, and for obvious reasons as the rounded ball on the tip is slightly less likely to cause injury and because the point system is more straightforward than for sabre, with no slashing motions. Right of way rules in foil also create more structured bouts. However the weapon of choice isn’t hard and fast by any stretch.

Blind fencers also tend to begin their matches with their swords touching, to allow them a point of reference for the bout. That change is a very important one that seems to be common to most blind fencing. In many blind fencing bouts, any part of the upper body is fair game for a point – including the arms. That allows for more chances for points, and of course accounts for the fact that it would be much more difficult to target a specific area without sight.

Another interesting point is that blind fencers are often (but not always!) people who lost their sight at some point rather than those who were born blind. Having previously had an visual orientation in space is really helpful for fencing, in part because it’s easier to walk in a straight line. Again that’s generally as there are some amazing stories out there of fencers who were born blind! There is no “one size fits all” idea in blind fencing – coaches tailor the experience for individuals based on their specific needs. Again, it’s important to know that this innovative version of fencing is being pioneered, and that there is no “right way” or “wrong way” to do it.

Sighted fencers sometimes participate in blind fencing bouts by wearing a blindfold to balance the ability level, as do those who have visual impairments but who aren’t completely blind. It’s important that everyone is on a level playing field.

There have been some blind fencing tournaments too – with schools who train blind fencers competing against one another!

Another thing that’s really amazing is that blind fencers participate fully in the activities of the club, including of course social events and in some cases normal club lessons and free play! These fencers are just as much a part of the clubs that they belong to as their sighted companions. Inclusion at it’s best! Fantastic!

More Than Sport

Fencing for the blind is more than a sport – it’s helpful for the lives of blind fencers off the strip as well. Fencing helps the blind to learn to navigate the physical world more effectively, honing their skills and sharpening their senses.

Here are the areas where blind fencers see improvements:

  • Balance
  • Coordination
  • Endurance
  • Sense of space

The sword becomes a replacement for the cane, allowing fencers to get information about the person who they’re fighting. Advancing with a weapon is not unlike moving on the sidewalk, with blind fencers honing their ability to use sound cues to understand their world as well as tactile stimulation that they get from their environment.

Fencing also gives those with visual impairments confidence in their ability to make their way in the world. All of those benefits that regular fencers get from stepping out onto the strip? Like improved confidence, physical skills, etc.? Blind fencers get them all as well. There’s also the great reaction that many people (like me!) have to the tremendous inspiration that blind fencers are to the rest of us. The joy that is fencing is something to be shared! With everyone!

Check out this video from NBC News to see some blind fencers in action. It’s pretty cool stuff!

What sighted fencers can learn

Sighted fencers can learn so much from the techniques that blind fencers employ.

In fact AFM coach Alexandr Maximovich uses the technique of fencing in full darkness.  Fencers all dress up in their full gear, then are blindfolded when the get to the strip before putting the masks on. Then the moment comes when the coach says “Fence!” At first the fencers were all completely  confused – where to go, how to fence, but then actually everyone started to get into the groove of the process, appreciating the change and learning that they didn’t need to rely on their eyes quite so much. Fencers who practice this way say that it’s great for because it helps them to get a better feeling of distance, to hear how close their opponent’s steps were, and to feel their opponent on a whole different level!

Just as fencing really challenges individuals with visual impairments to get outside of their comfort zone, so too can practicing fencing in a blind way help sighted fencers to get out of that comfort zone and explore fencing in a whole new way.

Do keep in mind that if you’re going to try this, to do it with a coach supervise who can help to keep everyone safe. Part of the reason that blind fencing has started to grow so beautifully is that coaches are keenly aware of safety, and train well in order to make it work.

We have so, so much to learn don’t we? All of us have the opportunity to learn from each other, in unexpected ways if we’re just open to the possibilities. Fencing shows us again and again that this sport is truly for everyone.

If you really want something, the sky is the limit. The toughest opponent ever is your own fears. ….