Pilates: From Leg Strength to Literacy
A program for blind and low-vision students at The Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind

November 25, 2020
Author: Mirea Sharifi, PMA Member

Eight years ago, I was invited to create a Pilates program for students at the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind (ASDB). A month before the end of the first academic year, I received some unexpected feedback from the speech-language pathologist at ASDB. She emailed, “You are making a huge difference in one of my students’ lives. She reads and writes so much more efficiently because of you!!! Thank you.”

Two weeks later, I visited the school to experience a day with the students and teachers. I used this insight to design and implement Pilates into the after school program for the students who live on campus. These students are blind or have low vision and have varying levels of cognitive ability. I observed the music class, physical education, and a session with the speech-language pathologist, our mutual student, who we’ll call Lily, and another child. They were working on reading and writing on a special device called a BrailleNote. A BrailleNote is a computer made by HumanWare for persons with visual impairments. It is a small box that has a braille keyboard, speech synthesizer and a Braille display.

As I watched, I learned what reading and writing is for a person who is blind. The speech-language pathologist looked at me and said, “This wasn’t possible at the beginning of the year.” She shared how she had spent most of her energy trying to get Lily to sit upright. Readers of braille should have nice curved fingers and use just their fingertips to read, an impossible task without good trunk support. Lily had arrived at our studio with little to no awareness of body posture, most likely due to the lack of visual input. She was often sliding off of the chair like a wet noodle. As I watched Lily work on her BrailleNote device, my eyes filled with tears. I understood how our work in the studio had a positive impact on her reading and writing.

If you have been considering developing a program for a specific population in your community, do it! Below are 3 things that I found helpful in creating this program for The Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind. Perhaps they will come in handy in your process.

Be the expert
The first year of this program, I worked with three young female students, ages 12, 18 and 21. The students’ Orientation and Mobility (O&M) specialist made arrangements for them to come to my Pilates studio once a week during the academic year. The responsibility of the O&M specialist is to teach individuals with visual impairments to travel safely, confidently and independently in their environments.

When I met with the O&M specialist to discuss what skills the students need to make his job successful, he quickly responded: leg strength, reciprocal movement and rhythm. These are necessary for the students to master the cane-walking technique, where the objective is to sweep with each step in a rhythmic fashion.

I wouldn’t have known where to begin to teach these students how to tell the time of day using the four cardinal directions and the sun, another skill the O&M teaches them. I absolutely could identify and teach Pilates exercises to develop these three mobility skills, and we prioritized them in our program.

Teach concepts not exercises
Teaching concepts will help translate the work you do in the studio into your students’ daily lives. Each Pilates session was anchored in one of the following concepts:
  1. Breathing
  2. Axial Elongation/ Core Control
  3. Orientation of Head, Neck and Shoulders
  4. Spinal Articulation
  5. Alignment and Posture of Upper and Lower Extremities
  6. Movement Integration

The concept that appeared to have the biggest impact with our youngest student, Lily, was axial elongation, taught through the exercise Bridging on the Reformer and the Ladder Barrel. To help encode it, the homework for that week was to learn how to spell elongation. Lily came back the next week and proudly spelled “e-l-o-n-g-a-t-i-o-n.’’ In addition to the unexpected positive impact on her reading and writing, I received the following from the O&M Specialist about Lily.

“Last week I was walking into the Middle School when the fire alarm went off for a fire drill. I noticed (Lily) and her class responding to the fire drill by changing the direction they were walking. I walked over to support her. Recently, I started working with her on changing techniques with her regular cane. The two things we were focusing on were: 1) to sweep with each step in a rhythmic fashion and 2) to turn her palm more towards the sky so that she had better control over the weight of the cane; this gave her better control and actually helped her keep it centered. After a short period of time, I praised her for doing such a great job, remembering the two important things to improve her cane techniques, and told her how proud of her I was for maintaining the good cane techniques. She turned to me and said, ‘Look at my spine – I am maintaining my elongation.’ It was true; she was standing there nice and tall and keeping it all together while walking.”

Be culturally sensitive

One of our volunteers, Jessica, a student in the College of Education at the University of Arizona, is blind. Jessica helped us understand the blind and low vision culture and made sure we presented sessions in a way that was accessible to the students.

Additionally, the O&M specialist introduced me to a teaching model called The Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC). The ECC is a disability-specific set of skills that compensates for vision loss and is foundational to all other learning. It focuses on independence, assistive technology, vocational training, social engagement and more to prepare children for their fullest life possible. By utilizing some of the objectives of the ECC, we built a bridge between a familiar learning environment for the students and the unfamiliar learning environment of the Pilates studio. For example, braille was used regularly in our sessions. We had 10x10 inch cards made with large print (for low vision students) and braille with the name of each piece of Pilates apparatus and every exercise that they learned. Instead of being told what they were going to learn, the students would read each exercise out loud.

I was motivated to create this program by a desire to have a positive impact in my community. I enjoy working with children and saw how Pilates can support the efforts of the O&M specialist. The Pilates program was a success and continued for several years with student participation increasing each year. We presented on The Impact of Pilates Equipment Classes on Orientation and Mobility and Other Expanded Core Areas at the AZ Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired Fall Conference (2015) and performed a Pilates demonstration at the Neuroscience and Cognitive Science Graduation and Awards Ceremony at the University of Arizona (2016).

This photo was taken at the beginning of the academic year 2013. Low tone of trunk musculature results in poor access to braille.

After 8 months of Pilates, once a week, the same student demonstrates good trunk support.

Mirea Sharifi

Mirea Sharifi, MFA, NCPT, currently resides in Los Angeles, CA where she is Founder/Owner of LA Pilates Lab. She serves as an Educator for Polestar Pilates Education and Oov Education. Photos of “Lily” courtesy of School for the Deaf and Blind.

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