Since 1985, the New York Association of Blind Athletes has given blind and visually impaired individuals the opportunity to compete and gain confidence.
How does one come to grips with the fact they’ll be spending the rest of their life without vision?
It’s a question New York Association of Blind Athletes (NYABA) Director of Sports Relations Lamar Brown had to answer once he was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) at a young age.
For the first 15 years of his life, sports played a major role during Brown’s childhood in the Bronx, particularly basketball. As his vision began to deteriorate during his high school years, those activities became more difficult.
“I couldn’t play basketball anymore, I couldn’t see girls anymore and that started to impact me socially,” recalled the 41-year-old Brown, who earned a psychology degree from Hunter College and works as a therapist for a suicide hotline.
Fortunately for Brown, he discovered his love of sports didn’t have to disappear the way his vision had. In 1997, a teacher told him about a group of blind athletes who played goalball in Manhattan. First introduced as a way to enhance the rehabilitation process for veterans who were visually impaired during World War II, goalball is played on a court featuring two teams of three players to a side. The objective is to roll a ball with bells into the opposing team’s net.
It was both a terrifying and exhilarating experience for Brown the first time the ball came at him.
“I probably dove out of the way and missed it completely. It’s totally a sensory-based game. You have to get acclimated to doing such things. It did not come naturally, I had to work really hard at it.”
It didn’t take long for Brown to get hooked on the game. While he has never been named to the U.S. National Team, he has been in the men’s pool for 13 years.
“(It’s) one of my proudest achievements. I get to train with the best guys. It helped improve my game.”
Goalball also gave Brown the assurance he could still remain physically active.
“I’ve surrounded myself with sports and athletics. I’m an avid workout guy. I have an insatiable appetite to work out four to five times a week in many capacities.”
Established following the 1984 Paralympic Games on Long Island, NYABA is an affiliated chapter of the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA). Goalball is one of the sports offered, along with track and field, wrestling, swimming and judo.
In his role as director of sports relations, Brown stresses the importance of competition when recruiting blind athletes. To him, athletics not only promotes the importance of physical fitness, but also breeds confidence.
“New York City is a very competitive culture. Competition matters. When I recruit (athletes) I always tell them the disabled community has an exorbitant amount of people who are obese or inactive with health problems that probably could be controlled if they were permitted to be active. A lot of kids just sit at home on their keyboards, whether it be a computer or musical instrument.”
Not everyone is cut out to be a Paralympian. But for those who have the talent and desire to represent their country, goalball is one sport that is tailored to the blind and visually impaired.
“It’s really specific and intentional for our disability. I always tell kids you can be as good as you want to be as long as you’re willing to put the work into it. This is a Paralympic sport. At its highest peak, you can wear USA across your chest.”
Fundraising can be quite a challenge for athletes and organizations like Brown and NYABA. Thanks to grants from the Foreseeable Future Foundation, Brown has been able to meet the costs of traveling and competitions.
After first meeting CEO Griffin Pinkow several years ago, Brown has been impressed with how many blind athletes have been impacted by the foundation’s support.
“Some of our guys are from really tough backgrounds and have had it hard. For people with disabilities, a sense of belonging and community is important. The Foreseeable Future Foundation providing grants… It’s monumental for certain people who may not have otherwise had the opportunity.”
Through adaptive sports, Brown has had the opportunity to travel to places he’s never been. He’s also an active member of Achilles International, an organization that serves over 150,000 youth, adults and veterans with disabilities all over the world. Competing across the United States, Mexico and Europe has allowed him to not only share his story, but impart valuable advice to those also struggling with vision loss.
“I tell about triumphing over being able to see and play mainstream basketball with kids, and then not. It’s never going to be easy, but it’s doable. You don’t have to sit home and do nothing. You can be active and effective in the community.”
To find out more about NYABA and how to become involved, click here.