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Ways to Incorporate Physical Fitness Into the Lives of Individuals Who are Deaf-Blind

Lauren J. Lieberman Ph.D.
SUNY Brockport
Brockport, NY

Jessica Taule M.S.
Technical Assistance Specialist
NTAC, Atlanta, GA

Originally published in Deaf-Blind Perspectives, 5(2) 6-10, Lieberman, L & Taule, J. (1997-98), Ways to incorporate physical fitness into the lives of individuals who are deaf-blind.

This article is reproduced with permission. Any further use requires permission from the copyright holder.

Physical activity is an essential component of a healthy life style. The following anecdote illustrates some of the difficulties that may occur in individuals who have not had an opportunity to develop physical fitness through regular exercise or activity:

Juan, a 17-year-old boy who became deaf and blind from Usher Syndrome, has been placed through vocational training as a horticulture assistant for a mall. His commute to work consists of walking a half mile to the bus stop, a 30-minute bus ride and a five-block walk to the mall. His responsibilities at work include planting, weeding, watering, and repotting. Whereas most 17-year olds could handle this easily, Juan is often too fatigued to complete his work. Physical fitness is limiting him, not only at work, but in all aspects of his life. He could benefit socially and physically by in creasing his current physical activity level.

Justification for Physical Activity

Physical activity is de fined as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscle, resulting in substantial increase over resting energy expenditure (Bouchard & Shephard, 1994). Increased physical activity can de crease the chances of dying from heart disease, plus the risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, dangerous cholesterol levels, and high stress levels (Surgeon General, 1996). Further more, the social and psychological benefits of increased physical activity are tremendous. According to Blessing, McCrimmon, Stovall, and Williford (1993), a regular program of aerobic exercise can improve cardiovascular function and body composition. Many individuals involved in daily exercise report better ability to sleep, improved self-esteem, increased stamina, and decreased stress levels leading to a better attitude about life. Many practitioners also find that when their students are involved in daily physical activity, negative behaviors, as well as self-injurious or self-destructive behaviors, decrease.

Research indicates that children who are blind tend to have more body fat, and less cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, and muscular endurance than their sighted peers (Lieberman & Carron, 1998; Winnick & Short, 1985). Winnick (1985) has also determined that children who are blind are behind in activities such as throwing, catching, balancing, striking, and body and spatial awareness. Researchers attribute these various de lays not to genetic limitations of performance, but rather to over-protection and discouraging attitudes on the part of the parents or teachers (Nixon, 1988; Winnick, 1985). To date, research on the fitness and motor ability of individuals who are deaf-blind is limited, yet one can logically conclude that children who are deaf-blind, due to their additional communication and mobility needs, will exhibit the same or more severe characteristics.

It is imperative to encourage individuals who are deaf-blind to participate in physical activity in school and in their recreational time. The physical, social, and psychological benefits of physical activity will in crease the likelihood of independence and improve the quality of life for these children.

Fitness Activities

A complete medical examination is recommended prior to beginning a fitness program. Clearance should be granted by an ophthalmologist for activities involving physical exertion if there is a history of detached retina, retinal bleeding, and other tenuous eye conditions. Once medical clearance is obtained, a fitness assessment should be conducted by a certified person such as a health/fitness instructor, exercise specialist, health or physical education teacher, fitness director, exercise test technologist, or personal trainer to determine a starting reference point. Once the preliminary examinations and assessments are completed, an exercise program should be created to include a warm-up phase, an exercise phase, and a cool-down phase. The warm-up and cool-down phases should have a duration of approximately 10 to 15 minutes and should consist of low-intensity cardiovascular exercise (walking, cycling, aerobics, stretching, etc.). It is essential that the individual choose an exercise activity that he or she enjoys.

Many individuals may not at first like the feeling of discomfort that comes with extended periods of physical activity such as bicycling or running; therefore, short distances and times are recommended. It is important to set challenging, yet attainable, goals with each person.

For more information on basic fitness principles for individuals with sensory impairments see Lieberman (1996) in the Winter issue of Deaf-Blind Perspectives. The following are success fully tested strategies to adapt fitness activities for individuals who are deaf-blind. Remember that activities should be chosen based on the individual’s strengths and weaknesses. In addition, these activities need be adapted to each person to increase the chances of reaching his or her potential.



Circuit Training

The safest way to train for muscular strength and endurance is with a circuit of stationary machines. The machines may consist of bench press or leg flexion extension machines, a sit-up board, or a universal machine. The following strategies will help ensure success:


The term aerobics means literally "with oxygen" or the "steady state transport of oxygen to the working muscles" (Shephard, 1990, p. 5). Thus, aerobics involves sustained physical activity to a point at which the body is utilizing oxygen or reaching 60%-80% of maxi mum heart rate over a period of time. To determine an individual’s working heart rate, subtract his or her age from 220, then multiply that number by .60, .70, or .80 depending upon how hard he or she wants to work (American College of Sports Medicine, 1991). For example, Nancy, who is 32 wants to work at 60% of her maximum heart rate. She would calculate 220 – 32 = 188 x .60 = 112.8. This means that Nancy’s working heart rate would be 110-120 beats per minute. To see if Nancy is working up to this level, she would sustain an activity such as aerobic dancing, cycling, or jogging in place for 5-10 minutes. While continuing this activity, she would take her pulse for 6 seconds, then add a 0 to her pulse score and compare that to 120. If her 6-second pulse was 14, that translates to 140 heart beats per minute and she should slow down a little. A pulse count of 10 translates to 100 beats per minute and she needs to step up the pace a little to maintain her desired heart rate. The working heart rate should be sustained for over 15 minutes, and preferably 30 minutes. It’s important to start out slowly. Some examples of aerobic activities include the following:

All these activities can be enjoyed with or without music. It is much easier to practice them without music first, then add that variable later.


Swimming is one of the best activities for individuals who are deaf-blind. There are few barriers, and the swimmer can move freely with out worrying too much about obstacles. Water can aid in range of motion, balance, stability, locomotion, and socialization. Adaptations for aquatics include the following:


Dancing gives an opportunity for free movement and exercise as well as a chance to be involved in a crowd, bumping bodies, moving, holding hands, and socializing (Smith, 1994). Pay attention to the following:

Deaf peer tutors are also excellent role models!


The benefits of physical activity have been well documented, yet many children who are deaf-blind are excluded from participation. Even when included, success or failure depends upon the attitude of the physical educator, teacher, parent, support staff, and the individual him/her self (Downs & Williams, 1994; Rizzo & Kirkendall, 1995). It is hoped that the above suggestions will foster creative ways to adapt attitudes, equipment, and the environment so the person who is deaf-blind may achieve his or her highest possible level of physical fitness. This will in turn lead to greater independence-the key to good job performance and a better quality of life.


American College of Sports Medicine (1991). Guidelines for exercise testing and prescription (4th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lea & Febiger.

Blessing, D.L., McCrimmon, D., Stovall, J., & Williford, H.N. (1993, February). The effects of regular exercise programs for visually impaired and sighted school children. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 50- 52.

Bouchard, C., & Shephard, R.J. (1994). Physical activity, fitness, and health: The model and key concepts. In C. Bouchard, R.J. Shephard, & T. Stephens (Eds.), Physical activity, fitness and health international proceedings and consensus statement (pp. 77- 86). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Downs, P., & Williams, T.(1994). Student attitudes toward integration of people with disabilities in activity settings. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 11, 32- 43.

Houston-Wilson, C., Lieberman, L.J., Horton, M., & Kasser, S. (1997). Peer tutoring: A plan for instructing students of all abilities. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, & Dance, 6, 39- 44.

Lieberman, L. J., & Carron, M.F. (1998). The health related fitness status of children with visual impairments. Presented at the Research Poster Session for AAHPERD in Reno, Nevada.

Lieberman, L.J., & Cowart, J.F. (1996). Games for people with sensory impairments. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Lieberman, L.J. (1996). Adapting games, sports and recreation for children and adults who are Deaf-Blind. Deaf-Blind Perspectives, 3, 5-8.

Nixon, H.L. (1988). Get ting over the worry hurdle: Parental encouragement and sports involvement of visually impaired children and youth. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 5, 29- 43.

Rizzo, T.L., & Kirkendall, D.R. (1995). Teaching students with mild disabilities: What affects attitudes of future physical educators? Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 12, 205- 216.

Shephard, R.J. (1990). Fitness in special populations. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Smith, T.B. (1994). Guidelines: Practical tips for working and socializing with deaf-blind people. Burtonsville, MD: Sign Media Inc.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1996). Physical activity and health (Report of the Surgeon General). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Winnick, J.P. (1985). Performance of visually impaired youngsters in physical education activities: Implications for main streaming. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 3, 58- 66.

Winnick, J.P., & Short, F.X. (1985). Physical fitness testing for the disabled: Project UNIQUE. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Lieberman, L. & Taule, J. (1997-98). Ways to incorporate physical fitness into the lives of individuals who are deaf-blind. Deaf-Blind Perspectives, 5(2) -10. http://www.tr.wou.edu/tr/dbp/pdf/dec97.pdf