NFB Nashville and Foreseeable Future Foundation Introduce Pilates to the Blind

From early June through the end of July, seven blind and visually impaired individuals discovered the benefits of Pilates.

There’s usually a pivotal moment of discovery for most people who gradually lose their vision that life as they know it will never be the same.

For Nashville native James Brown, that moment of clarity occurred in his early teens. The 49-year-old Brown was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at around age six. His vision gradually declined over the years to the point where he was down to light perception by age 21.

Some doctors are blunt about what to expect, often giving the most dire prognosis regarding blindness. This was not the case with Brown.

“Doctors told me, ‘you might not ever lose your vision’. They really didn’t tell me how bad it was because I was able to read print almost like everyone else… They (sometimes) try to tell people the most rosy picture. They don’t really prepare you for what’s probably going to come.”

At age 13, Brown realized his life would not look like everyone else’s in the sighted world. One day, his mom came to pick him up from school. As they were pulling out of the parking lot, Brown suddenly began asking himself how people could possibly lead a normal life as a blind person. He experienced the usual emotions of anger and bitterness for several years before acceptance finally took hold.

Brown, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Middle Tennessee State University and a master’s in psychology from Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, began using a cane in college after most of his vision had disappeared. He decided there were two choices: try to cover up his blindness or make it obvious to the rest of the world.

“When I started using my cane, that was sort of the identifier to say, ‘hey, I’m really blind and I’m going to stop trying to fake it. When I did that, it really opened up a lot of opportunities for me to be who I was and become independent.”

In 2007, Brown joined the National Federation of the Blind after being awarded one of their collegiate scholarships. He remembers sitting at the hotel bar during his first national convention in Atlanta. To his right sat a blind television producer, a blind lawyer was to his left and a blind scientist further down.

“I was like, ‘maybe I need to figure out what these people have.”

Brown became involved with NFB and is in his eighth year as president of the Tennessee chapter. Growing up, he was as active as most kids even while losing his vision: riding his bike, playing dodgeball and kickball. While attending the Tennessee School for the Blind, he ran track and joined the wrestling team.

Brown was intrigued when he was contacted one day last year by Foreseeable Future Foundation CEO Griffin Pinkow, who wanted to partner with NFB Nashville. They discussed a number of possibilities before settling on organizing a Pilates class. Brown received a grant from the foundation that would cover the cost of paying an instructor, while NFB Nashville funded the equipment that would be used.

The process of locating an instructor took some time. One had to back out at the last minute because of a scheduling conflict. Brown finally found a teacher and held a two-month class that ran from June through the end of July.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, Pilates was first developed in the early 20th century by Joseph Pilates. It was first used as a way for dancers to recover from injury. In recent years, it has gained traction as a form of exercise and body conditioning with a wide range of health benefits including increased flexibility, muscle tone and strength. Like yoga, tai chi and other similar exercises, the benefits of Pilates can be therapeutic and preventative.

Another benefit for blind individuals is unlike other sports or recreational activities, Pilates doesn’t need to be modified. The instructor went to each participant and explained every routine.

“You’re basically working just like any other person would work. We purchased each person an exercise mat, bands, a foam roller, yoga stretching bands and a yoga ball. You’re pretty much able to take everything you learned after class and take it home and do whatever you would like.”

The Nashville Pilates Class took place twice a week for an hour at Well Body Pilates Studio. Seven blind and low vision participants took part in stretching, band work, stabilization and core work. They were allowed to keep the equipment and were encouraged to work on their own outside class.

Brown was pleased with the success of the first class and hopes to plan another sometime next year. The Foreseeable Future grant had a major impact on many of the participants. One woman in her sixties told Brown her blood sugar level is lower now than before she started the Pilates class. She has since come off insulin and is using exercise to maintain that level.

To Brown, success stories like her is what these classes are all about.

“I was impressed with the core strength (Pilates) can allow you to have within a couple months of taking two classes a week. I could definitely tell a difference.”