Tennis changes lives of visually impaired students

A ground-breaking nation-wide programme was launched recently in Fremont, teaching groups of blind and visually impaired students to play tennis.
High school sophomore Jaey Cho works with student Addie Chase McCann at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA

Tennis for visually impaired
A tennis programme for the visually impaired was started in Japan in 1984 and has now spread across Asia to Massachusetts, New York and the city of Fremont. Students at the California School for the Blind are playing the game, using junior-size rackets with shorter handles, and a net that’s not as wide or as high as a regular tennis net. The specially designed foam ball has a ping-pong ball at its core with pieces of metal jingling inside, allowing players to hear when it’s struck or bounces.

Visit the tennisSERVES website for the history of tennis for the visually impaired

How it works
Tennis SERVES uses equipment that relies on the senses of hearing and touch, mainly sound-adapted tennis balls. Made in Japan, each adapted tennis ball contains a small ping-pong ball within which are many small metal balls. These balls rattle on impact allowing the athlete to locate the ball.

The programme in Fremont
The programme was launched in Massachusetts in 2010 and expanded last fall to New York and Fremont. It offers elementary and middle school classes, and an opportunity for middle and high school students to attend some of their classes at local public schools.

"That's what I do with the Wii (video game console)," said 12-year-old Travis, of Yuba City, taking part in the class for the first time. "I just listen for the ball and hit it."

Transition programme and vocational training
The school also offers a transition programme so students ages 16 to 22 can explore careers, vocational training and work experience, take classes on independent living skills, and enroll in community college courses. Students older than 18 can live in on-campus apartments.

Students take part in a variety of physical activities, including swimming, karate, tandem bicycling and rock climbing. "We try to introduce a lot of physical activities for the students ... so that they can pick and choose what they like to do," Ross said.

"It gets me up and active"
Take 12-year-old Sebastian, who left the tennis court beaming during his most recent practice. "That was the fastest I've been," he said. "I like everything (about the class). It gets me up and active. I've learned, really, how to play tennis. ... If I get these balls, then I can play at the tennis court near my house."

Completely student-run organisation
Sejal Vallabh, a 17-year-old high school junior from Newton, Massachusetts, discovered the sport two summers ago during a trip to Japan. "Tennis is exciting because it's a mainstream sport that most of these students have never had access to before," she said. "The organisation is completely student-run -- all high school students who have a passion for tennis, have a passion to share the sport they love with other people."

Building self-confidence
In Fremont, two Irvington High School students, both tennis players, volunteered to teach the class as part of the school's project for seniors. Robert Kurihara, 17, said it was fulfilling to have an impact on their students' lives. "It was a great experience," he said. "Seeing their self-confidence build as they got better at handling the balls, their improvement."

Visit the Mercury News website for the full story

More information
Find out about the wheelchair tennis masters that took place in 2009
Find out about Kids Tennis Foundation Inc. providing tennis opportunities for disadvantaged children

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