It isn’t easy for someone losing their vision to view the experience as an opportunity to learn and grow. But that’s exactly what Devin Fernandez and Third Eye Insight have done for hundreds of blind and visually impaired individuals in the Long Island, New York area for over 10 years.
Fernandez founded TEI with his sister Kim in 2010 for the purpose of building strength, endurance, self-confidence and independence through martial arts and other fitness programs.
Fernandez has firsthand experience in wrestling with the emotions that come with vision loss. The 64-year-old New York native was first diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa in 2000. As his vision deteriorated to near total blindness, he found solace in the spiritual background instilled in him during his time as an altar boy and attending Catholic school.
During his daily meditation, Fernandez began pondering his future. He decided the best way to move forward was to share what he already knew.
I was like, ‘what can I share that I already know’?” Fernandez recalled. “That was the martial arts. I decided to go down that road because the martial arts also has a spiritual aspect to it. That was and still is my focus. The physical aspect is great, but that’s only a part of it.
As he explored social services for the blind in the Long Island area where he lived, Fernandez was dismayed to learn there were few fitness activities for the blind and visually impaired. He was always physically active as a child, and developed a passion for the martial arts when his son Brian became involved in a ninjitsu program.
The intention was he and I would join together and I would bail out. But it turned around and worked the other way. He did it a couple of years and decided it was not for (him). But I stayed with it.
When Fernandez and his sister first established Third Eye Insight, they started with six volunteers and taught classes to five visually impaired students. They visited local blind groups to spread the word, offering programs for free to draw interest. The biggest challenge TEI faced in the beginning was finding an ideal location. Fernandez was granted permission by his instructor to use the facilities where he trained. Another hurdle was consistently maintaining volunteers. But over time, the organization has grown to serve over 300 individuals covering a 30-mile area.
Transportation is a huge issue. Even between counties, it’s a huge issue. Initially we had a very full class of 15 people at a time. Now, we’re down to about five or six. I’m hoping it recovers. I think a lot of it is because of COVID. People don’t want to wear masks in class. On the flip side, people don’t want to get sick.
In addition to martial arts, yoga and meditation classes, Third eye has also offered horseback riding, skiing, kayaking, surfing, fishing, sailing, tandem biking and hockey. Participants of all ages are encouraged to attend, including kids. Though he didn’t begin losing his vision until adulthood, Fernandez understands the adjustment is particularly difficult for children.
One of the boys in particular is feeling the difference. (He) says, ‘I’m different than everybody else. I don’t want people to think I’m different’. That’s a bit of a challenge to get him to flip his thinking.
Fernandez also understands many blind individuals are used to leading sedentary lifestyles. So he constantly promotes the benefits of activities like martial arts for physical and mental well-being.
It’s there to help build self-esteem and confidence. By doing that, it gives a person the power to feel like they’re in control. It’s a huge impact on people’s lives.
TEI has worked with numerous organizations including Foundation Fighting Blindness, American Foundation for the Blind, Helen Keller, and Eye to Eye. Fernandez first discovered Foreseeable Future Foundation through an email he received encouraging him to contact them for support. He applied for a grant last year but wasn’t selected until this year. The grant is being used to host events in fishing and archery.
With that money, I wanted to make sure I served as many people as I could. It helped Third Eye charter a boat for the visually impaired. We took about 25 people out for about four hours to go fishing. We had a beautiful day. It was an excellent event.
Nothing satisfies Fernandez more than improving the overall outlook of a blind person’s life. His future goal is to build an entire center serving the visually impaired year-round.
I would include martial arts and meditation. It would have a pool, a track where visually impaired people could come walk with their dogs. We’d offer music classes, educational classes, and adaptive technology, things that really help the community.
An ambitious goal, to be sure. But when one applies the combination of positive thinking with a determination to succeed, the sky’s the limit.
If you’d like more information on Third Eye Insight, click here to visit their website.