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Cheering Blind

by Deja Powell and Jill Flygare

From the Editor: Deja Powell is an orientation and mobility instructor in St. George, Utah. She is enrolled in a PhD program at Capella University and was awarded the Kenneth Jernigan Scholarship for $12,000 at the NFB national convention in 2014. In this article, the story of Deja's cheerleading career is told from two points of view. First Deja reflects on her experience, and then her former coach, Jill Flygare, shares her thoughts and perspective.

DEJA POWELL

Deja Powell Recently I received an email from a young woman who has ambitions of trying out for her high school's cheerleading squad. She wanted to know if it was possible for someone like her, who is blind, to be a cheerleader. Her desire to be a cheerleader hit close to home. I had the same aspiration when I was in high school.

I grew up in Salt Lake City and have been blind since birth. When I entered high school I was quite shy. I was thrilled to be out of junior high and on to bigger and better things, but I lacked confidence and struggled to accept my blindness. Like any teenager, I was trying to figure out who I was, where I fit in, and what my goals and dreams really were. I was confused about a lot of things, but I knew one thing for sure. I knew I wanted to be involved in everything high school had to offer. Determined to build my confidence, I set a personal goal to step up and step out.

My mom is a dance teacher, and I started dancing when I was two years old. I loved every style and every minute of it! For as long as I could remember, the thing I wanted to do most in high school was dance. Much to my dismay, things didn't go as I had hoped. I didn't make the drill team or the dance company. I was crushed! I wanted it more than I'd wanted anything to that point in my life. I knew I could be a dancer; my mom had always told me and shown me I could do it. What now? I still had to reach my goal of getting involved.

I have always loved sports. I love the thrill of the game, I love being part of a team, and I wanted to be involved with my school. What better way to be involved and support my school's teams than becoming a cheerleader?

I loved the idea of cheerleading, but I honestly couldn't understand how I could do it. I had never met nor heard of another blind cheerleader, and I sincerely doubted it was possible for a blind person to meet such a set of challenges. How could a blind person follow a game, learn cheer movements, find the proper place in group routines, do stunts, execute jumps, or stay in sync? The list went on and on. Even if I actually made the cheering squad, I would have to tell my advisors that I was blind (or rather, that I had a vision problem, which is how I worded it back then). That scared me more than stunting or performing. I had become very good at keeping my blindness a secret. I didn't use a cane or read Braille, and I was quite talented at pretending I could see things that I really couldn't.

I expressed my concerns about cheerleading to my mom, and she told me that I just needed to try out. She assured me that we would figure it all out when the time came. Nevertheless, my doubts got the upper hand. I canceled all my plans to try out for the cheerleading squad. My fears were just too much.

However, my mom was not having it. She reminded me that I said I wanted to be a cheerleader; at least I had to give it a try. She's a smart mom!

I cried myself to sleep the night before the tryouts, but I did try out, and I made it! I did sophomore cheerleading in tenth grade, and then I made the varsity squad my junior and senior years.

But how did we make it work? I say we, because it really did take a whole team effort. My coaches and my squad quickly learned to adapt things to make cheerleading possible for me. My coaches showed me the moves by placing my arms in the correct positions, and I quickly learned the names for the various cheer maneuvers. High V, low V, T, half T, herkies, toe touches, stag jumps, high kicks, and hurdles—I learned them all. My learning process was very much hands-on. Fortunately I had terrific coaches and teammates who were always willing to step in and correct me.

One aspect of cheerleading that I thought I would never be a part of was stunting. The idea that I could be part of a routine that involved throwing girls into the air seemed way out of the realm of possibility. But my coaches threw me right in with everyone else. We always counted out when the stunt was going up and coming down. While this is already a common practice in cheerleading, it worked perfectly for me. My coaches never ruled anything out. They let me try it all until we figured out what worked.

My coaches included me in every aspect of the squad. They pushed me just as hard as they pushed everyone else. They made me run laps when I was late, corrected me when I made mistakes, yelled at me when I deserved it (like when I rolled my eyes at my coach). That was exactly what I needed. They had the same expectations for me that they had for the other cheerleaders, and that was a huge part of my success.

The other important part of my success was keeping a dialog open with my coaches. I wasn't always great at that. I needed to ask lots of questions, to ask for help and reach out to others for ideas. Being silent and just wondering how to do something never worked for me.

Cheerleading was not exactly where I aspired to be in the beginning, but it turned out to be the best confidence builder I could have found. I was part of a team and part of my school. I realized that, as a blind person, I really could do anything I wanted to, as long as I had the right tools, the right attitude, and the right people setting high expectations for me.

Do I wish I had made my life easier by using a cane? Could I have reached out to other blind people such as Pam Allen, who was also a cheerleader? Do I wish I had been more confident in my blindness? Absolutely! But cheerleading turned out to be a great starting point for me on my journey.

Now I want you to read about my cheerleading from the perspective of my coach. It's been twelve years since I was in high school, but I believe the information is still relevant today and may be helpful to any advisor who is considering having a blind cheerleader on the squad.

JILL FLYGARE

I began teaching and coaching at Granger High School in Salt Lake City in 1998. I inherited a varsity cheerleading squad that had been pre-selected; this was a learning year, a year to see what kind of talent the school had to offer. I watched the juniors closely to see who would emerge as leaders and who would be content just to follow along. Who would replace the seniors?

The sophomore cheerleaders were under the leadership of a different director, but I paid close attention to them. I knew I would be pulling them up to the varsity squad the next year. As I watched them through the summer, I noticed a tall, dark-haired girl. I won't say that I remember her as the best one out there. What I do remember is that she had a smile so big, and she had legs so long. She could dance, stunt, and remember the cheers--all important qualities in a good cheerleader. And most important to me, she had a great attitude.

I finally asked, "Who is that girl?"

"Her name is Deja," was the response. I didn't expect what came next. The director told me Deja was blind.

I will admit that I was taken aback at first. I thought there was no way a blind girl could be a cheerleader. How would she do stunts? How could she learn the cheers? How would she work in a group? Then I stopped and reminded myself that I had witnessed her doing all the things I was questioning. After all, perseverance and positive attitude are what every cheerleader needs and should exemplify, and Deja clearly had those qualities. I also felt that as a coach I had the responsibility to give her an equal chance. I knew I could indeed teach her.

Deja tried out and made the varsity cheerleading squad. She was under my coaching for two years, and she was a great addition to the team. However, in a way, she was just another cheerleader. Once we figured out the best way for her to learn, her blindness didn't negatively impact her ability to master the cheers or new dances. Although it took her a little longer to learn the routines, once she learned them she never forgot.

Muscle memory is important for cheerleaders, and it becomes even more important when you are blind. I often placed Deja's arms so she could feel when she was in the right position. This helped her build that correct muscle memory, ultimately helping her become a stronger cheerleader.

Thinking back, I probably should have worried a little bit more about stunting, but for some reason I didn't. We used a hand-on-hand approach to show Deja the placements of her hands when basing a stunt, and this method seemed to work well. By our second year, we had a solid plan of action, and teaching routines ran smoothly.

I believe if we had announced to the opposing team that we had a blind cheerleader, no one would have been able to pick Deja from the rest of the squad. One of the greatest gifts of working with Deja was her attitude. She just wanted to be a member of the team. As a cheerleader, she didn't want to be treated differently. She didn't want different expectations or goals from her sighted teammates, and she didn't want to stand out.

The experience of coaching Deja taught me that there are no limitations to being a cheerleader, except those that you put on yourself. If you are blind and you want to be a cheerleader, be one. Be the best cheerleader you can be, using whatever techniques work for you. All you need is the courage to try out, the dedication to work hard, the perseverance to keep going, and the fortitude to stand up to those who tell you NO. Above all, you need a positive attitude through it all.

If you are the parent of a blind child, you need to be your cheerleader's biggest cheerleader. Stand behind your child and encourage her or him. Help your child find ways to make it work. If your blind child wants to be a cheerleader, know that there will be obstacles. There will be bumps and bruises, and there will be hurt feelings. All of this comes with growing up, being part of a team, and simply living life. Teaching our children, whether blind or sighted, to cope with these struggles should be a shared responsibility between parent and coach. I'm grateful I took a chance on a blind cheerleader. It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my coaching career.

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