But on the gym floor, dressed in the traditional white “gi” of the karate student, their missing sight becomes secondary as their new-found skills take over.
They listen intently for the quick intake of breath that indicates an opponent is about to strike. They focus on the quiet clapping of their instructor as she darts about the room, daring them to catch her.
They are the 12 members of the CNIB Tsuruoka Karate Club – 10 of them legally blind. It is the only such club in Canada, meeting Saturday morning at Holy Family School in Kingston.
Their instructor is Heather Swann, also head instructor of the Karate club at CFB Kingston. Heather works as a secretary in the city.
“Some people who are blind may go to a club and train with sighted people, which is fine “ said Ms. Swann, “but the concept of this club is to be primarily for blind people.
“The true concept behind Karate is not just the physical,” she said. “It is the internal. And it’s the combination of the two. It’s your inner strength and your outer strength combining in the traditional style of karate.”
Having watched how blind people deal with the world around them by feeling and remembering their way through it, she decided they would be perfect candidates for a karate club of their own.
Coordinating with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, she signed up 10 local blind people. They have stayed with her, the extra two being sighted men using wheelchairs.
“Teaching specific arm and leg movements to a sightless person presents a sizeable problem,” said Ms. Swann. She said it is important the students learn by themselves how their bodies should be positioned. Only as a last resort does she move them into the correct position.
She said the hardest thing to teach blind students is how to move quickly because they are used to carefully feeling their way around. It’s part of her job to build in them the confidence to carry out some of the faster manouevres.
“They have to trust themselves to do it and they’ve got to trust you as an instructor.”
Ms. Swann said the blind students’ progress in the year and a half since the club started is comparable to that expected in a sighted student.
“In their testing and in competition they expect to be treated by the judges exactly the same as sighted competitors,” she said.
Terry Leizert, 26, of Gananoque, has been with the club since its inception in September 1988. Complications in his diabetes took his sight two years ago. Now he relies on his guide dog to get him around town and to his business administration classes at St. Lawrence College.
“I have always wanted to do karate. I like the self-defence part of it,” he said. “It’s good exercise and it helps with coordination and balance.”
Terry said he plans to continue his lessons “as far as I can” even so far as obtaining a black belt “ if I make it that far.”
Another of the students is Armando Del Gobbo. He is 43 and has been blind for the past 30 years, as the result of an eye infection. “The main reason I got into karate,” he said, “is because I’ve always been interested in marital arts. Another reason was for the exercise and internal training. I was at a low point in my life and needed my self-confidence built up. And karate did that just fine.
“The main thing I like is the people that are involved. I have never met a more friendly and more supportive group.”