Beyond The Competition, Tyler Merren Recognized For Community Involvement

If you’re looking for someone to follow in the blind sports world, take in the work and dedication of U.S. ParaOlympian Tyler Merren. Last year, we featured some of his and the U.S. goalball team’s accomplishments as well as his Revision Fitness App.

It’s no surprise, then, to find out that Tyler has been recognized as one of four ParaOlympic Athletes who have made huge contributions to the blindness and the mainstream communities. Besides being a goalball phenom, Merren is a fitness trainer, motivational speaker, and dedicated disabilities advocate. He has appeared on several podcasts like Ambiguously Blind.

Check out the USABA’s press release featuring Merren’s recognition here and his Revision Fitness App here.

Advocacy In Action: Even Our Hobbies Count.

The Philly air was hot that Sunday in 2004 while the competition on atleast fifty chess boards sizzled. My guide dog, Lali, and I sat across the table from a man who was rated at least five hundred points higher than me. I should’ve lost big, but I took him to endgame…and drew a crowd!

What? Why would a dozen or so competitors who were finished with their games walk over to observe me play? Oh, right, I’m blind…and I’m sure many of us have heard the laundry list of myths about what we who are blind or low-vision shouldn’t be able to do. While I did lose that game before winning the next three out of four rounds, I first began learning how my hobbies can serve as a form of advocacy.

Maybe, you’re a piano player, guitarist, martial arts competitor, or great traveler in a big city who simply likes to take walks. Any time we step into those arenas, we get to share our dignity with the world at large. No, this isn’t meant to heap pressure on us but to be an exciting opportunity.

Yes, we in the 21st century. Still so many people hold those stereotypes and stigmas that cloud their vision about what we can and can’t do. Unless someone who is sighted knows a friend, relative, fellow church member, or coworker who’s blind, they mostlikely have a lot of questions about our abilities.

So when we play chess against sighted competition, join a public judo or Brazilian jujutsu club, have dinner out with family at a restaurant, or attend classes-we won’t get the opportunity to share the gifts we have. By default, when we strive to put our bold foot forward, people will be curious. They may even stare. They may converse softly with someone nearby about us. They may even find no other words to say in appreciation of our efforts than, “Do you need any help?”. Still that moment gives us a chance to find our voice. We may even have a sotry to tell if the moment’s right.

Yes, such behavior I just described may seem suspicious or frustrating for us to notice. Still the time presents itself for us to rise to the challenge. If you’re fighting in martial arts competition, let that adrenaline flow as you throw your opponent for ipan to the applause of people around you. If you’re playing chess or poker-win or lose-smile or nod your head in apprecation of the bystanders as you make your next move. If you are working out at your local gym and someone compliments you on being such an inspiration, say, “Thank you….” and pump out your next set of reps focused as if no one saw you pumping iron in the first place.

Yes, advocacy in action is the life of navigating the contours we have been given.

Back on that hot Sunday in August, 2004, I finished that chess tournament with 3 wins and 2 losses. I even made a few friends along the way and found a club to attend down in Philly’s Center City. As I left the venue, I thanked the tournament Director, National Master Dan Heisman, for the opportunity to play. I put in some money for the freewill donation that went toward a couple causes he was supporting at the time. Then, following my friend, Joe and his son Donte, I headed for home.

Leadership Academy Begins

Feeling voiceless to finding our voice…feeling alone in disability to being enabled to help others…from being unaware of all the resources available for your child who is disabled to being educated to advocate: These aims and more will spur us on our journey as Fort Wayne’s League for the Blind and Disabled kicks off its inaugral Leadership Academy class.

That’s what brought twenty-four of us together at 9:00 AM this morning at the Anthony Wayne Services building. We want to speak for the disability community in community events, public forums, and in one-on-one conversation. Twenty-four people from across the disability landscape from blind and low-vision to deaf, quadriplegic, and autistic. You may recall the themes we often emphasize here on Boldly Blind: mutual encouragement for us who are blind or low-vision and raising awareness among those who are not so disabled of our dignity and capabilities. Both emphases were on full display as we shared our stories with each other. For me personally, I loved hearing the challenges that so many of these colleagues in advocacy have overcome. And yet we don’t overcome such hurdles for our own sake but for the betterment of others who face various degrees of discrimination. We share such coping stores to find that commonality that will bring us closer in helping each other embrace our blindness, deafness, autism, cerebral palsy, et al.

Perhaps, your State or city doesn’t have such a plan or advocacy opportunity. Contact The League For the Blind’s Inclusion Institute and speak with its directors, Alana and Luke. They may be able to help you facilitate a similar effort in your area or they may steer you toward someone else who can build such a course of study.
(260) 441-0551

Redefining Ourselves After Vision Loss, Living Our Stories

Try hard as we might in everyday life and we find no one can truly be like Clark Kent ducking into the phone booth and emerging seconds later clothed in a cape marked by the famous red S. Sure, people who see someone who’s blind walking down the street by themselves with cane in hand may view a nearly “finished product.” A spouse or parent anticipates the moment their blind son or friend comes into an airport’s baggage claims room following their new guide dog in supposedly perfect alignment. No, that new guide dog user isn’t Superman either. Bonding has just begun and will take up to a year to solidify.

The same thing is true when it comes to getting a grip on being blind or having low-vision. It takes redefining yourself, finding new goals and job or picking up previous work with new techniques and accommodations. Over time we will be able to explain how we adapt to new situations-a different office than where we worked before, why our income may be fixed instead of fluid if we have become unable to work. Friends and family who know us well and don’t put the world-beater sleepshades over their own eyes will recognize that redefining our lives takes time. Learning braille may come more quickly for some while navigating the internet may happen fast for others, particularly if you attend a VA unit helping blinded servicemen get back on their feet after being injured in combat.

On a recent edition of the Hadley School’s Coming To Grips With Vision Loss, we learn about Cara. She was an artist before going blind. It had been a hobby for her. The irony happened for her that when going blind, she began a more focused approach to doing her artwork so that it became a major part of her career. Listen to her story. And you might check out a couple other bios linked afterward. Of course, I make this disclaimer: We don’t have to achieve the top of the mountain in our field when blind or sighted to to maintain a positive sense of self-worth. We are all blessed with differing gifts and abilities, especially when it comes to the hobbies we pursue. Still stories like the following show how we everyday, average folks can be inspired to redefine our livelihood being blind.

So check out Cara’s story here. Also, read about Mike Armstrong’s journey to becoming a talented musician and mountain climber. For a fuller treatment of vision loss from start to total blindness, read a description of Erik Weihenmeir’s book, Touch The Top Of The World.
Being boldly blind, we do navigate those contours as we come to grips with vision loss.

What’s Your Story?

We disability advocates share the desire of bridging the acceptance gap. Here on Boldly Blind, we do this through two means that have perhaps become familiar to you: Encouraging each other who are blind or otherwise disabled and raising awareness among those who are nondisabled of our dignity and capabilities.

So many consumer organizations like the American Council of the Blind, National Federation of the Blind, and United Cerebral Palsy have groups that assist in the former: Live chat sessions for members to share experiences, webinars updating technological advances, and calendars of events for people who are blind living in the same area to gather live and in-person. The latter challenge is harder to achieve due in part to the big fear factors that may make our nondisabled friends and family members skittish when coming to grips with our mental, emotional, or physical condition.

“To most nondisabled people, the idea of becoming disabled is pretty scary. I get it. It’s natural to fear the unknown, and it’s tough to grapple with the idea that our bodies can change in ways beyond our control. Unfortunately, these fears often translate to stigma against disabled people, because it can be challenging to accept that another person’s reality may become one’s own. This is why we need to have open, honest conversations about disability. We need to reframe these fears and turn them into an understanding of disability as part of the human experience.” (Ladau, Demystifying Disability, p38)

A way to do this is sharing our stories. Answering those news reporter questions may give us structure: Who?, What?, Where?, When Why? and How?

What one or two factors have sent our lives in a trajectory toward better independence or self-respect? Was there a teacher, coach, or counselor that helped us turn from swimming in a quagmire of self-doubt into being confident in speaking up for ourselves? How did we start coming to grips with our disability and seeing ways it contoured our likes, dislikes, hopes and opportunities?

Each of our stories will be different. Remember Ladau’s pizza analogy from the previous post? As no two people who are physically or cognitively disabled are alike, the same is true with our stories. Yes, many of us have common touchpoints. Think on some vision rehabilitation therapist/teacher that helped you navigate your home using various shades or patterns of lighting. He or she didn’t just have book learning but the firsthand contact with others who shared your needs. That’s why being in touch with others who are blind, deaf or autistic like yourself. You learn the reality of needing not to reinvent the wheel.

Then, when you talk about your disability with a professor or admissions counselor at school or a coworker on the job, you ride the tide of much more than your own individual fight. While there are millions of people who share the experiences and impact of being blind, so many of our sighted friends may have never even encountered someone else who is. In a sense, meeting you may be an eye opening experience for them.

I can recall in college how a friend of mine brought this point home to me after I shared a struggle I had with explaining how I used my red-tipped mobility cane to protect myself from swinging doors and detect inclines or drop-offs in the sidewalk. It was so common for someone nearby to just grab my elbow, halt me mid-step or ask if I knew where I was on campus.

My friend reminded me that at our small school, many classmates came from small towns where the only bit of braille they knew of was part of a storybook in elementary school. Maybe, the only good contact they had with a guide dog was watching a special on Animal Planet or a special interest blurb on the nightly news broadcast from the nearest big city. The reality of having a disability remained more than at arm’s reach.

Of course, college campuses now have much better disabled studetn services than they did back in 1991. Opportunities for the nondisabled and disabled students to interact in class and just randomly elsewhere make person to person contact that much more frequent. Nonprofit military veterans groups like the Blinded Veterans of America and Iraq-Afghanistant Veterans Association are doing wonders in helping American servicemen transition to socializing and working in the civilian everyday world.

So what’s your story? Here’s to us who are blind or otherwise disabled finding ways to encourage one another, build each other up, and bridge that awareness gap with those who do not yet look through the lens on life we’ve been given.

Relating To Our Blindness, Not Always Cut And Dry

I found this analogy of what it means to have a disability thought-provoking. It comes from Emily Ladau’s Demystifying Disability p31: “Let’s think of disability identity as a pizza. The crust is the foundation of who you are—your actual being. While every pizza has a crust, it’s the toppings that make each individual pizza what it is. There can be infinite combinations of toppings. And even though millions of pizzas are made with the same toppings, no two slices are exactly alike. Having or not having a disability might seem like the most straightforward of the factors that influence what disability means to a person, but it’s actually not quite that simple.”

Of course, we’ll excuse Ladau for her speaking of having a disability as one’s identity. For us who are Christians, our identity is in Christ thanks to being sealed in Him through baptism. Still, the point is made since being blind, deaf, quadriplegic, etc. is a thread in the fabric that makes up each of us. There are times where our disabilities matter in what accommodations we make for work or school or at home. There are times where we talk about everyday stuff like sports, theology, macroeconomics, or the prices of gas around town. At those times, we don’t necessarily interject disability-related remarks. I’ve known teachers who are blind who simply teach English, history, math, and so forth just like any other teacher who’s sighted. When I was working for the Fed., folks on the other end of the phone line would have no clue at all that I’m blind even as was setting up installment agreements or giving warnings of enforcement action. On my end, of course, with one ear having JAWS screen reading software chattering away about what my monitor showed, my accommodations made themselves quite evident. Plus, folks walking down the aisle in the middle of cubicalville saw my fingers traversing the refreshable braille display I used.

So often, our disabilities become what we make of them and that in itself isn’t always black and white. I’m not the greatest at crossing lighted four-lane streets though I can in a pinch. But, put a job for me to do on the computer, and I’m doing that pretty well. Some folks who are blind rock out when it comes to street crossings or cooking fancy meals while they don’t get the internet so well.

As Ladau says, no two slices of pizza are exactly alike. And thank God for that!

“Yes, Blind People Can And Do Play Chess.”

You may have heard the saying that goes: While you may be playing checkers, your opponent might be playing chess. That comparison between games often means that someone is thinking or competing at a less thorough or skilled way than someone else. In the popular family-room mind, checkers is often seen as the easier game than the more complex game of kings and queens.

That’s especially true in the United States where very little press covers chess, rendering it to the annals of a few game stores and the stigmas about its participants as nerdy, brainiacs that are on another mental level than the rest of us. And that’s especially true among the blindness community where chess is advertised along with Connect Four, Scrabble, and Uno as being played at the dinner table, not in the parlans of known sports like basketball or football.

Yet, did you know that in chess, the United States has three of the top players in the world? Our best player, Fabiano Caruana challenged the reigning world champion, Magnus Carlsen, back in 2018.

Of course, this feat didn’t garner the attention that Bobby Fischer’s defeat of Boris Spasky did in 1974 when the United States had its first chess champion in decades. Still, Caruana’s accomplishments did inspire a lot of kids and adults to take up the game of chess during the era of the pandemic when we were all masking up and sheltering in place for far too long.

People who are blind and low-vision have organized correspondence and over the board chess events here in the United States since the late 1960s. Back then, players sent their moves to one another on postcards or called each other on the phone to play games. Some of our players teamed up in an international event for blind players before officially forming the United States Braille Chess Association. Since then, we have changed Braille to Blind while the acronym, USBCA still remains.

One of our first standout players was Al Sandrin. He’d been one of the United States’ top master level players before he went blind. Then, afterwards, he participated in USBCA events along with keeping up his play in top level sighted events. You can read more about him here. Other more recent winners of the over the board tournament include the Late Joe Kennedy, Jeff Siebrandt, Alex Barrasso, Henry Olynik, Mike Davis, Al Pietrolungo, and Jim Thoune. . Most recently, Jessica Lauser became the first woman to win our over the board annual tournament. The linked article tells of her journey to chess prominence.

You, too, can join us at this year’s annual over-the-board tournament which will be held in the Chicago suburbs on the Elmhurst College campus. There’s no need to wonder if you aren’t rated high enough or if new players can come. Anyone at any skill level is welcome at our over-the-board tournament about which you can read on our website.

While some of us who play in the USBCA are active competitors against sighted counterparts, many of us are not. We are a group of people who love the game and enjoy finding time for competition against each other while making new friends.

Of course, finding an adapted chess set-replete with tactile board and pieces-may seem to be a challenge for some and it’s not always cheap. Yet, if you go to the Braille Super Store, to Maxiaids, or to Chess Baron, you can purchase sets of varying quality and prices.

To further remove the mystique of chess as a game for just the brainy, join in with us and mix it up on In short, we are a community of beginners to the Olympic hopeful learning from and teaching one another.

As one of our USBCA past presidents often said: Yes, blind people can and do play chess. So set up those pieces and board for a game…and more!

Adaptive Sports: Ready, Set, Go!

Are your brackets busted or still thriving? Yes, as the college basketball season winds down and we fans can’t wait to see who is crowned champion, many adaptive sports are in full swing or heating up.

We feature a lot on here about sports like goalball, beep baseball, and other paraolympic activities for a great reason. We’ve got our athletic heroes and models in the blindness community just as fans do anywhere else. We also may try our hand at doing some adaptive sport ourselves from time to time. What a way to stay fit, alert, and primed for the rest of our lives!

For me, the fun is in running and weightlifting. No, I’m not a top performer myself. Yet, I love listening to the motivational advice and tips from such athletes as Tyler Merren who is the creator of the Revision Fitness App. I read a lot of articles on training regimens so that, even at age fifty-one, I’m still setting personal goals and challenging myself to be as in shape as possible. My competitive juices flow over the chessboard. Look for more about how we who are blind can and do play chess in the next post.

At The Blind Guide blog, Ed Henkler gives an excellent overview of adaptive sports-and not just the games like goalball and track but extreme sports like whitewater rafting. He mentions several paraolympic luminaries as well. Check it out here and see how he features the work that seven time goalball paraolympian, Jen Armbruster, encourages people in her community to stay fit through sports. Check out the numerous links to resources for you who may just be getting started or are searching for which sport might interest you.

What a joy it is to get up and get moving as we navigate life’s contours boldly blind.

Thankful For Those Who’ve Gone Before Us

While many in and beyond the disabilities community know the name of Judith Heumann who recently died, not as many know the name, Dr. Bill Takeshita. Certainly not as accomplished internationally as Heumann, he was a long-time advocate for those of us who are blind or low-vision. You can read the article from Braille Institute’s blog here about his teaching, speaking and lecturing on all things related to blindness.