Written by Dr. Suzanne Droleskey
Instructor, Confucius Institute and Department of Health and Kinesiology, Texas A&M University
I had been waiting three years for the email that finally arrived in August 2014. So, I responded with delight at the opportunity to have Kaitlyn Kellermeyer join my KINE 199 Tai Chi class at Texas A&M University. This confident International Studies major confided much later that she hadn’t expected such enthusiastic agreement. Instead, Kaitlyn thought she was going to have to talk me into letting her learn Tai Chi.
Kaitlyn is blind.
In April 2014, Kaitlyn lost her remaining vision after a retinal detachment caused by a rare genetic condition called Incontinentia Pigmenti. She had been blind since infancy in one eye and began to lose sight in the other as a freshman in high school. So, in August, she was returning to Texas A&M, for the first time, as a totally blind student. To those who know her, it wouldn’t have seemed odd for the spirited college sophomore to reenroll immediately after learning to work with her new partner, a Golden Retriever guide dog named Lunar, and starting to learn braille. While Kaitlyn was to face days in fall 2014 that were a struggle, she was, and remains, determined to reach her goals. In August 2014, one of those goals was to learn to play Tai Chi.
“I was a little apprehensive when I decided to try taking a Tai Chi course, but I wanted to do it, and I knew that with enough prior planning and communication with Dr. Droleskey, it would be possible,” said Kaitlyn. “I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from both the class and myself, and the first time I was shown the entirety of Form 24, the complex movements seemed a little intimidating.”
What Kaitlyn didn’t know is that I had been preparing to teach her, or someone like her, since my first visually impaired Tai Chi student inspired me three years earlier. That gentleman, employed as a substitute teacher, was legally blind but still able to see some shapes and light. He enrolled in my Beginner I Tai Chi class because he wanted to gain better balance. His wife joined him in the class so she could help teach him skills at home between classes. As an educator, he was able to guide me about what he needed from an instructor. Essentially, we experimented together on teaching techniques, some of which were fumbles and some successes. It was an invaluable partnership because most information about teaching physical skills to the blind are focused on teaching children, not adults.
Despite some stumbling, the class for this first visually impaired student was relatively successful, and his balance improved as the weeks passed. Several months after the class, he told me that Tai Chi had helped him to secure a full time teaching position. He described being so nervous waiting for the interview to start that he ran through the Yang style form several times in his mind to calm himself.
By the end of the class, I expected him to gain flexibility and balance. I didn’t anticipate becoming a better instructor for all my students by improving my ability to explain moves verbally while demonstrating them, thinking creatively about new methodologies to maximize what each student could do instead of focusing on what they couldn’t do, and learning to adapt my teaching techniques on the spot when something didn’t work.
Like many instructors with a challenging student, I started looking for tools I could use to improve my teaching of Tai Chi to other visually impaired students. Over time, I had gathered a number of ideas, but...I didn’t have an opportunity to try them until Kaitlyn e-mailed me.
“When I first contacted Dr. Droleskey to inform her that I would be in her class and that I was totally blind, I wasn’t sure how she would react,” Kaitlyn recalled. “My professors in the past have been uncertain of how to approach teaching a student with a visual impairment, and I was unsure myself about how I would be able to learn Tai Chi. I was surprised at the enthusiasm with which Dr. Droleskey approached the challenge of teaching me Tai Chi. It was reassuring, and also a little strange.”
The first meeting with Kaitlyn was an exploration of her ideas and mine about how best to facilitate her learning. Being newly blind, she wasn’t entirely sure how she would accomplish learning the Simplified Yang 24 Form that would be the focus of the class. She guided me on her use of a recorder to tape lectures, receive power-point slides in advance of the class so she could read them with an assisted text reader, and taking written tests via computer with headsets. In turn, I guided her in techniques I had identified. But my foundational principle was that Kaitlyn was to be no different than anyone else in the class, everyone learning together and supporting each other’s learning.
To ensure that everyone understood this foundational principle, I helped Kaitlyn send to her classmates a message letting them know how to interact successfully with someone who is visually impaired. After all, a Tai Chi classroom is a dynamic environment quite unlike a lecture hall where a student primarily sits in one place and takes notes. Some guidelines were simple: don’t play with the guide dog, Lunar, when he is working, don’t grab Kaitlyn unexpectedly, say her name at the start of any sentence directed to her, and allow her to have a specific place to put her belongings that was easy for her to find on her own. I also encouraged the sighted students to use this as an opportunity to learn to interact with someone who is visually impaired. A number of the 23 other students in the class took advantage of that and chose places in the room close to Kaitlyn’s location, which was purposefully selected so that she could navigate the large classroom space on her own.
The primary teaching tool that was different for Kaitlyn than for the rest of the class was how she “watched” me perform a movement.
“I learned each move in the form by first holding onto my instructor’s arms, hands, or legs and feeling the ways she moved and shifted her weight, then mimicking the movements while she watched and corrected my form,” Kaitlyn said. “I was surprised at how easily the movements and the flow of the form came to me. It was easier to keep track of where my body was without the distraction of trying to watch myself move—I could focus on the way things felt instead of the way they looked, and with practice I was able to make the movements feel more smooth, which also made them look more smooth to others.” To guide Kaitlyn in the space, a short pile 3 foot by 16 foot piece of carpet provided a way for her to feel where the performance space on the floor was so she could maintain her sense of direction as she moved across the floor.
Travis Simmons, one of Kaitlyn’s classmates, was unsure how class would work for Kaitlyn.
“At the beginning of the semester, I did not think Kaitlyn would enjoy class or be able to keep up with the new material. Interestingly, she was actually one of the best in our class at playing Tai Chi.”
Indeed, Kaitlyn was so good at learning the positions and the form, she was made a group practice leader at one point. Travis was one of the students who chose to join her group to work on the moving bow stance and such positions as Part the Horse’s Mane. When that first group was formed, Kaitlyn expressed confusion at how she could possibly “see” her group to help them. However, soon, she and her group were interacting the same way that she and I worked together, with Kaitlyn feeling the limbs and torsos of her classmates to understand how they were moving. She was quite adept at explaining positioning, and as any teacher knows, having to explain something to others makes one better at the skill.
Travis, who is studying to become a physician, theorized that Kaitlyn’s condition caused her to have to focus more on where her body is in space and that this was actually helping her to have better concentration when she played Tai Chi. Clearly, internal focus is an important part of being successful; however, Kaitlyn also is an intuitive learner. She quickly found her center and mastered basic body positions to the point that she could feel when something wasn’t quite right. While she is still a beginner, Kaitlyn proved to herself, and to 23 sighted classmates, that she had chosen well when she joined the class.
“Learning to play Tai Chi has improved my sense of self and my confidence in my balance and movement in my daily life,” said Kaitlyn. “Understanding body alignment has allowed me to better adjust for the loss of balance I experience without sight.”
As instructors, we have a gift of learning we give to each student we teach. But, as with so many of my students, Kaitlyn taught me as much as I taught her. Not only do I have more tools to assist future visually impaired students, I have had a deeper lesson in how one person chose to respond to a situation that threw her life radically out of balance. We all face struggles in our lives and have to find ways to bring ourselves back into harmony. I only hope I can face those on my pathway with as much grace and strength as Kaitlyn.