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Monday, March 20, 2006

Blind Athletes and the 2006 Winter Paralympics

I never thought much about the Paralympics. In fact, I thought they had some kind of relationship to the Special Olympics, the heartwarming event held periodically in which mentally challenged athletes participate and “everyone goes home a winner.” Then, a few years ago, in a conversation I had with Matt King, IBM Special Needs Advocate and competitive tandem bicyclist, I learned that the two events had nothing to do with each other and, in the Paralympics, the competition gets fierce and the athletes play to win. At that time, Matt trained daily for the Melbourne Paralympics in which he would compete in the cycling events.

Matt, who lost his vision to RP, has a blind brother, Jim King, who also enjoys outdoor sports and, if memory serves me, Jim, a PPO board member and all around terrific guy, became the first blind musher to run the length of the Iditarod course behind a dog sled. Needless to say, the King Brothers don’t need to feel like winners just for showing up but, rather, their competitive drive brings them to sports and, when participating, they play to win.

Having learned about the real nature of the Paralympics from Matt, I found myself interested in the recently concluded winter events in Turin, Italy. Paralympics means, “Parallel Olympics and does not refer to paraplegics specifically although some do compete. I will focus on blind athletes and the sports in which they participated and let those who write about other disabilities cover them for their readers.

I must say, as I collected background articles for this piece (thanks again to the Blind News guys), that I found it surprising that very few of the pieces mentioning blind athletes came from the US. Except for a single piece from MSN news, all sources for this item came from outside our country. It amazes me that the networks will spend hours covering a hissy fit between two male speed skaters but not give blind athletes a single mention.

The March 10 MSN News ran an article titled, “Winter Paralympics opens in Turin: cauldron lit by blind 11-year-old Italian girl,” and described some of the major points of the games. Demonstrating the importance of these events to the athletes with various disabilities, the article states, “Random anti-doping tests will be performed, while the medalists in each event will be also tested.” These competitors take this very seriously and these events don’t celebrate one for just showing up. Even though most of the press had left Turin, the Paralympic games would award 58 medals during its nine days of
Competition.

Due to a lack of sponsorship dollars and an unproven audience base, the Winter Paralympics did not receive television coverage, but fans could, “check out the webcast of all the events at the International Paralympic Committee's site. It features a searchable archive, program guide and highlights section,” says an article in Toronto Now.

“In many ways, these Games make for more interesting viewing, because the athletes aren't carbon copies of one another. Each has individualized harnesses and prosthetics specially designed for his or her participation in events. The truly visionary technology used by athletes is often a test run for designs that help thousands of people with disabilities,” continues the Toronto Now article. This demonstrates another similarity between technologies for the mainstream and those for people with disabilities as many medical procedures, automotive and other technologies get their first tests in the world of competition and later get applied for non-athletic purposes.

In the skiing events, people with vision impairments can use a guide, “who describes the intricacies of the course from the sidelines with a megaphone.” The Toronto Now article continues by explaining that, “the very best skiers just need to hear their sighted guide ski on the course ahead of them to know which path to take.” I know quite a few blind skiers and this item makes the first reference to following a guide just by the sound of their skis on the slopes. I guess that’s why these guys compete internationally and, when I find myself in a snowy environment, I either sit by a fireplace indoors or, if I feel especially energetic, use cross country skis in preformed paths over short and mostly flat courses. Even the thought of careening down the side of a snow covered mountain listening to someone yell directions at me through a loudspeaker frightens me. These blind skiers should challenge the Olympic medal winners to a lights off competition on a random slope after dark. I doubt any will accept this challenge.

Regular Blind Confidential readers will know that I often include firearms in my lists of items I would like to have made more accessible and, as recently as last week, I challenged any KKK member to a shoot out if I could use a specially rigged Mossberg shotgun. The blind Paralympians already have accessible weapons described in the Toronto Now article, “For the biathlon, visually impaired skiers follow their guide to the shooting range and are directed to the targets by sound. Their rifles shoot a beam of light and sound at the target that gets bounced back to the shooter's headset. The pitch increases the closer they get to the target, allowing them to refine their aim.” I’m a member of the Night Shooting Club in Clearwater, Florida. I go there with a friend once a year or so and he gives me verbal clues to aim my weapon and shoot at paper targets. Last time out, of the fifty shots I took with a competition target pistol, I got 46 hits and about fifteen bulls.

I plan on researching this technology further to see what I need to buy to attach to a rifle and handgun to improve my shooting skills. One of the fellows who work at the Night gun club is a former member of the Israeli secret service, he has told me, “If I can teach sighted people to shoot in the dark, I can teach you to shoot too.” With this technology, I’ll probably take him up on his offer. If anyone in my readership knows who builds these attachments for the guns, please send me an email or post a comment as I really do want to learn more. As I have a little experience cross country skiing, I wonder if there is a senior circuit for blind biathletes.

Proving that the Paralympic games also maintain the drama of controversy, The Star Phoenix, another Canadian publication reported, “Chris Williamson of Markham, Ont., was awarded a bronze medal at the Paralympics Tuesday by enforcing a rule he never agreed with.”

Williamson originally thought he had finished fourth in the vision impaired Super G slalom event when he learned the rules committee had awarded him the bronze medal, “after German gold medalist Gerd Gradwohl was disqualified because he became separated by more than one directional turn from his guide Karl Heinz Vachenauer during the race,” says the Star Phoenix article.

Gradwohl, who had thought he won Sunday's downhill race, was furious over the disqualification and quoted in the same article as saying, "It is disgraceful. It always is when you lose a medal, especially a gold, because of a rule. Sometimes it's not good to make decisions because of rules. It is not sporting."

Williamson, the benefactor of the disqualification also showed anger at the decision, "It doesn't make sense," he said. "If you can't see your guide, I don't see how that is a benefit. I think the basic theory of the rule is incorrect."

Demonstrating the worldwide appeal of scandal, the Chinese Peoples Daily online covered the story in an article entitled, “Italian seizes first gold medal from blind skiing at Paralympics.” The article states, “Dal Maistro seized the gold medal in the Super G, blind category at the Sestriere field. As a matter of fact, Dal Maistro finished second behind German skier Gerd Gradwohl, who was then disqualified because the distance between him and his guide was not within regulations, and third was Slovakian Radomir Dudas.”

So, with controversy, intense competition and blind people with firearms, I can’t understand why the Paralympic games do not get more coverage in the United States. Perhaps, it has something to do with the fact that very few Americans participated and all of the medals were won by people from Canada or Europe with Russia leading the pack. We Americans like to ignore what we can’t win and the Paralympics don’t even have figure skating to please those who enjoy leering at teenaged girls in skimpy outfits.

Afterward

A quick apology to Matt Bailey who, in my last two BC posts, got renamed Matt Daly. This is part of the fun with listening to speech synthesizers all of the time.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Will Pearson said...

Hi.

I've actually used one of those auditory aiming mechanisms with an air rifle. The process, as I remember it, was to listen to a tone that increased in pitch the closer you got to the target. As prior to this I had had experience shooting rifles whilst sighted, in the T.A., which is the UK's equivalent to the National Guard, I found the auditory mechanism to be about as useful as a screen reader is when trying to access visual media, they're both partial solutions to the wrong problem.

Aim is really a question of spatial relationships, you need to adjust the point of aim to be over the target. So, you need to know in which direction to adjust the aim, as well as the distance of the adjustment. In this respect, shooting a rifle is really no different to performing drag and drop in, say, the WinForms designer of Microsoft's Visual Studio. Both problems are one of spatial relationships between two objects, and therefore can utilise very similar solutions.

I've obviously got too much spare time at the moment, as I created a quick solution yesterday. We've got a group working on ultrasonic positional sensing here at Bristol, as well as undergrads working on games for their final year projects. The solution was to take a shooting video game and attach some ultrasonic sensors to the front and rear of the toy gun, which gave us the direction in which the gun was pointing and thus the trajectory of the projectile, from which we could calculate the point of aim. In terms of the user interface, I created the outline of a rectangle using sonic pixelation, and this represented the target. I then created a cross-hair, again using sonic pixelation, to represent the point of aim. On the whole it proved rather successful, and was the most fun I've had in a while.

Given that the problem's the same as drag and drop, you could probably get NSF funding to research this. It's worth a shot....

5:59 AM  
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