Vision resource teacher Holly Guinan (in sunglasses) rallies her boat with a cheer while Harjinder Saran (far right at far side of boat) beams during their outing to Harrison Hot Springs last Thursday

Paddling sight unseen

Sight impaired students get a chance to taste the thrill of dragon boating

A group of visually impaired students took to the water last week to learn the fine art of dragon boat paddling.

For the second year in a row, the Fraser Valley Dragon Boat Club (FVDBC) took blind students out on Harrison Lake to give them an opportunity to try a sport that is surprisingly well-suited to visually impaired people.

In this sport, sight can be a hindrance,” says Scott Farrell, FVDBC president. “We get excited, we see boats on both sides of us, we can lose concentration and look over. When you’re visually impaired, this issue it taken away.”

On shore, the differences were obvious between the sighted volunteers, teachers and siblings, and the 16 visually-impaired students from across the Fraser Valley. They held their canes or clung to trusted companion’s arms. They listened carefully to instructions about how to hold the paddle before being guided down to the beach to the two waiting dragon boats pulled up on the sandy shore.

Once everyone is in the boats, it didn’t’ seem to make a difference who is sighted or not. Instead, the distinction was between the skilled volunteers from FVDBC and the non-skilled students, guardians and a reporter who sloppily made their way across the water, enjoying the sights and sounds and trusting the proper paddling to others.

The two boats ungracefully splashed and giggled their way along the Harrison waterfront, vying for first in mini races that raised the merriment to a new level. Smiles came as readily as the splashes from the water.

Harjinder Saran, 15, from Aldergrove, beamed as she held the paddle and listened to her seatmate’s coaching. Saran, who has been legally blind since birth, came for the second year in a row to the outing and says she liked it more this time since she knew what to expect and could just enjoy the experience.

“I liked that everyone had to work together, because it teaches us teamwork,” she says.

She says the fact you don’t have to see to paddle effectively is good and, just like everything in her life, “You just have to find a different way to do it.”

Students ranged in age but all came with the desire to try something new or experience more after their first paddle last year with the club. Vision resource teachers from Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Mission and Langley meet once a month to organize sessions for their students. Holly Guinan, vision teacher for School District 35, co-ordinated this outing with the FVDBC.

“Blind kids need a rich variety of concrete, hands-on experiences because they’re not picking up common environmental and social concepts incidentally,” explains Guinan.

She says the reaction she heard from students was great and they are already looking forward to next year’s outing.

“I heard the students comparing how wet they got from the paddlers, as though greater wetness was a badge of superior paddling ability,” she remarks with a laugh.

The students even came up with a way to modify the activity for visually impaired people.

“One kids suggested that drum heads can be tightened and loosened to create different sounds. He thought the problem of not knowing which drum beat belonged to “your’ boat would be solved by tuning the drums. I thought that was a pretty good adaptation for the blind!”

Farrell says the great thing about dragon boating is the team building and inclusivity of it. There are blind teams, but also organ transplant teams, cancer survivor teams, young and old teams – it truly is a sport for almost anyone. He was pleased with how the event last Thursday, May 21 went and says they would love to see it grow even more next year.

“I thought it went fabulously; our volunteers really stepped up to make it a success,” says Farrell. “We had more kids than we did in the past so it’s growing and I’m really happy about that. It would be wonderful if we could fill our third boat with visually impaired children next time.”