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Blind Students Learn Self-Defence

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the Vancouver Courier, February 8, 2001.

It's hard to imagine 11-year-old Sydney Williams kicking or punching anyone. Williams, whose sightless eyes are a flickering blue, is slim and less than five feet tall.

But as experts will tell you, blindness is no guarantee against attack by bullies or predators. That's why Williams and 36 other visually impaired kids will learn how to defend themselves during a special self-defense course offered through the Vancouver School Board this week.

Staff at the VSB's District Resource Centre have arranged for a California organization called Project Blind Ambition to visit Feb. 7 to 13. Instructors teach kids how to improve their motor skills and respond to attacks, verbally and physically.

Debra Legge, an orientation and mobility specialist with the school board, said in 10 years as an instructor, she's seen visually impaired students bullied physically and verbally. An older student was even sexually assaulted on an Ontario university campus.

Parents began pushing for the program after hearing about local abduction attempts this fall, Legge said.

Williams found out about the course through her motor skills teacher at school. At this point, she's mostly excited about the prospect of hanging out with her friends and missing two days of school. Her mother, Peggy Robertson, has a different goal in mind.

"Violence against women statistics are just so high," Robertson said. "A couple more years and she's going to go off on her own more-walking to school by herself, going off with her friends.... I want to make sure she can take care of herself."

Williams used to endure classmates' taunts at school, but said she hasn't been physically attacked by a bully. Her mother worries more about older predators.

According to Project Blind Ambition's statistics, three out of four blind people are assaulted in their lifetimes. In addition, 80 per cent of disabled children are molested, fondled or touched inappropriately during childhood. Robertson, who has studied capoeira and kung fu, thinks self-defence skills can help improve her daughter's body awareness, strength, flexibility and confidence.

"You don't walk around feeling like a victim," Robertson said. "You learn how to carry yourself, because most predators go for easy prey." Williams went blind at age three when leukemia spread to her optic nerve. She beat the disease, but never regained her sight.

Though she doesn't look like a stereotypical tough girl, Williams learned a few tricks by attending some of her mother's martial arts classes. When two boys visited her home a few years ago, one taunted her-until she took him down with a leg-sweep.

"He was just bugging me and bugging me, so I grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him down," Williams recalled. "He was like, 'What's going on?'"

Project Blind Ambition was developed by Millicent Collinsworth, a visually impaired Los Angeles resident who was assaulted in broad daylight 14 years ago. After the attack, which left her bleeding, no one came to her aid.

The incident lit a fire under Collinsworth, who studied eight years to become the United States' first and only blind self-defence instructor. She founded Project Blind Ambition in 1994. During the Project Blind Ambition course, kids learn how loud they have to scream to attract attention and where to aim when they fight their attackers. Instructors are heavily padded so kids can cut loose without fear of harming anyone.

Parents and teachers are also attending Project Blind Ambition courses. Robertson said she wants to be familiar with the course so she can help her daughter polish her skills.

"I don't want to be over-protective," Robertson said. "It's a big world, and we travel and do lots of stuff. I think it opens up the world a lot more."