‘Fitness for All’ is an exercise in inclusion

Students Judith Lung, Alec Sundly and Erik Elvebak take their positions on the hardwood court as the referee shouts, “Eyeshades down! Quiet, please! Center! Play!”

A shrill whistle pierces the air and the three teammates – a blind undergrad who “never did exercise” as a kid, a 6-foot varsity soccer player and a 43-year-old who lost most of his vision while playing ice hockey – begin an intense match.

Learning the game on a Rec Sports playing court.

The sport is goalball. Every Friday for the past semester, a dozen or so people have come to the Recreational Sports Facility to learn and practice the game.

A team sport similar to soccer and originally created for blind war veterans, its ball is equipped with bells, while blindfolds level the playing field for sighted and sight-impaired players.  Without vision to rely on, players must tap into other senses to locate the ball and position themselves in space.

“The sighted have to come into the blind world,” says disability health and fitness analyst Matt Grigorieff, a 2011 Berkeley grad and the driving force behind a new campus program called Fitness for All, of which the goalball class is one part.

There, blind players get a rare opportunity to learn a demanding sport and enhance their health, both physical and mental – the latter being one of the biggest benefits of exercise, in Grigorieff’s view. “The brain can recall facts faster if you’re working out. The data is overwhelming,” he says.

Grigorieff has long been keenly interested in health and fitness for people with disabilities, having a chronic hip condition himself. In community college he helped build an inclusive fitness program, to give students and community members with disabilities an affordable means to stay active.

Golf Fore Veterans (see video)

Golf Fore Veterans session

Spring semester saw the launch of Golf Fore Veterans, a program for student veterans with disabilities. Undergrad Jessica Adams joined with a number of campus and community partners – among them Fitness for All, the National Alliance for Accessible Golf,  the U.S. Golf Association and Cal Athletics’ women’s golf team – to create the class, held weekly on the Tilden Golf Course.

In that peaceful environment, 18 young veterans are learning the game, along with stress-reduction techniques. The goal is to help them better cope with disabilities stemming from military service, both the physical variety one can often see and hidden disabilities like post-traumatic stress.

After transferring to Berkeley in 2009, he was surprised to discover that many students with disabilities were seeing their health decline, because they didn’t have access to fitness resources that met their special needs. Eventually, after writing a number of research papers on disability and fitness, he won a Haas Scholars grant, which allowed him to survey fitness offerings on campuses across California.

Today, in his newly created staff position, Grigorieff is using all he’s learned, in and out of class, to work for change at Berkeley. He dreams big – of everything from new disability-studies courses to universal-access fitness equipment in the Recreational Sports Facility (a dozen such machines were recently installed) and trained professionals to help people with disabilities exercise safely. At RSF, he’d also like to see a small cadre of students with disabilities get jobs (to influence the culture), as well as awareness training for everyone on staff.

The list of campus entities he’s working with is long: It includes, among others, the RSF, the Disabled Students Program and the Division of Equity and Inclusion.

“We want to be the leader in the UC system, to really build these types of programs” at Berkeley, he says.

Goalball instruction at RSF’s  “blue gym” is an optional supplement to Derek Van Rheenen’s academic course “Education, Sports and Culture,” which looks at sport as a cultural practice that influences how we think about the world. The two-unit goalball class was developed in collaboration with the campus’s American Cultures Engaged Scholarship program and the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program, which provides coaching and referees.

Matt Grigorieff

Matt Grigorieff, disability health and fitness advocate

Van Rheenen, who directs the campus’s Athletic Study Center, has taught the course for 15 years, but this is the first time he’s included “the continuum and distinctions around ability and disability within physical education and sports,” he says. Examining “body privilege” has been both educational and deeply rewarding, he says. “I don’t think I could ever go back. It’s been a void in my syllabus up to now.”

This semester, for example, his students discussed “the very intentional and controversial classification system around disability” used in the Paralympic Games. Later in the week, many of them regrouped in the blue gym for coaching, hard play and informal discussion of how theories covered in class relate to their experience playing goalball and navigating the world.

For the sighted, especially, learnings have been impressive. Intercollegiate football, soccer and water polo players, for instance, described a new appreciation for their own position as sighted and exceptionally able-bodied people, as well as the skills needed to navigate without vision. Communication with teammates is “huge” in goalball, Sundly noted one Friday as the group debriefed between games. “I’m starting to bring what I’m learning here onto the soccer field,” he said.

The speed with which friendships developed, through goalball, came as a surprise, even to Grigorieff. “It’s great to see people with different physical abilities and disabilities all getting lunch – lowering those assumptions and barriers that often surround people with disabilities,” he said. “With goalball, you’re all equals.”

Related information:
•  With a foothold a Berkeley, ‘engaged scholarship’ goes where it’s needed (NewsCenter, 2012)