In November 2013, Alive & Kicking embarked on an exciting initiative to provide visually impaired Kenyan children with access to the game of football. With support from the Angus Lawson Memorial Trust, we set out to provide 400 visually impaired children and their teachers with an introduction to blind football and the balls needed to organise games themselves. Alive & Kicking Kenya has been making the ‘sound balls’ since 2010, but this was the first comprehensive programme to actually bring the joy of football to visually impaired children.
There are 250,000 people living with severe visual impairments in Kenya, including 17,000 children. The majority suffer from cataract and trachoma, conditions that can be treated with relatively simple interventions. Blind and visually impaired children often grow up without the support that they need and find themselves without the education and skills to prosper. There are only six specialist schools for blind children in the whole country, three of which are run by the Salvation Army. The other visually impaired children attend integrated education programs or are denied education altogether. Many families view blindness as a curse.
There are a range of adapted sports that visually impaired children can participate in. Children who participate in adapted sports have been noted to see improvements in behaviour, social interaction and academic performance, as well as seeing a decrease in secondary health complications.
The biggest barrier to sporting participation for Kenya’s visually impaired children is a lack of specialised equipment. The balls usually have to be imported at great cost and a general lack of infrastructure is a constant hindrance to organisers and participants. Since developing a sound ball, Alive & Kicking has been able to provide visually impaired people with the opportunity to take part in blind football. Alive & Kicking’s mission includes extending the right to play to as many disadvantaged children in Africa as possible.
This project aimed to enable over 400 visually impaired Kenyan children to participate in blind football. It provided an introduction to the game to students and teachers at Kenya’s specialist schools and allowed training sessions and matches to be organised under the supervision of experienced professionals, giving them the ability to play the game themselves going forward by donating 300 sound balls.
By visiting visually impaired children at their schools, the project made access to sport easy.
Alive & Kicking’s Football for the Visually Impaired 2013-14 was enabled through the funding and support of the Angus Lawson Memorial Trust, a grant-making organisation that mitigates the suffering of children worldwide.
The introductory sessions were developed with advice received from Royal National College for the Blind and led by UNICEF’s Jonathan Coles, an expert in the field of Paralympic sports. He recruited support from a group of players from FC Talanta, a local professional team, who were graduates of the National Youth Talent Academy, an initiative to unlock the potential of talented young Kenyans.
The Salvation Army and the Kenyan Ministry of Education were of great assistance in identifying and coordinating with the participating schools.
Jonathan Coles and the FC Talanta players visited Kenya’s six specialist schools for visually impaired children: Thika School, Likoni School, Kibos School, St Oda School, St Lucy’s School and St Francis School. Likoni and St Francis only cater for primary age children, while the other offer both primary and secondary education.
Teachers and students at each school were given an introduction to blind football. They were taught the practical elements of the game as well as given technical advice on how to control, pass and shoot while relying only on sound.
Students at Kenya’s special schools, as well as blind football players around the world, suffer from different levels of visual impairment. To ensure fairness during a game of blind football all players are required to wear blindfolds. This allows all players to compete at the same level, and made the B1 students (totally blind) particularly enthusiastic to take part.
Blind football goalkeepers are allowed to be fully sighted in order to give directions to the outfield players. In the case of the school visits, the best-sighted students or teachers went in goal. Before each match or session, the players are led around the perimeter of the pitch to enable them to gauge the size of the playing area.
A major strength of blind football that was discovered throughout the training sessions and introductory matches was its inclusiveness. The fact that the game can be played on an equal level by students with B1, B2 and B3 levels of visual impairment was noted to be hugely popular. It enables young people to develop very strong teamwork skills and has a great impact on the confidence and self-esteem of all involved.
Teachers at the schools were particularly pleased to have been involved in the programme and to have learnt valuable skills in training children to play. They were excited at the possibility of being able to extend their skillset further by organising annual games between the schools and in engaging students from integrated educational schools.
By engaging both students and teachers at all six of Kenya’s schools for visually impaired children, Alive & Kicking has ensured that blind football will be enjoyed by disadvantaged and marginalised young people for years to come.
The participating schools were invited to attend a tournament, held at Thika School on 22 February 2014. The teams had been preparing avidly since receiving the initial training and sound balls in the preceding weeks.
Every school that participated in the training sessions were able to enter a team into the primary section, with Thika, Kibos, St Oda and St Lucy also making up the secondary draw.
Some schools had access to their own buses, while other were reimbursed for their journeys on public transportation. Visiting teams that could not make the trip in the same day were provided with accommodation.
Games were played in two 15 minute halves, with penalty shoot-outs used to settle games that ended in a draw. St Lucy’s were crowned champions in the Secondary School competition, following a tight 1-0 victory over Thika in the final. Kibos won the Primary School competition after overcoming St Francis, also by a single goal to nil. But simply having a tournament for visually impaired young people was the most important achievement on the day.
The cost of sound balls in Kenya is normally a major barrier to participation in blind football. 300 Alive & Kicking sound balls were specifically made for this initiative, with at least 10 balls given to each participating school. A total of 140 balls were distributed to the participating schools based on student numbers.
To ensure the project was as inclusive as possible, the remaining 160 balls were distributed among the 61 other schools which have been identified as educating visually impaired students as part of the Kenya Integrated Education Programme. The number of sound balls sent to each identified school was based on the number of visually impaired children attending each school. The balls were accompanied by an information pack outlining the basics of blind football – the rules and regulations as well as hints, tips and technical advice.
As a result of this initiative, 507 young visually impaired Kenyans and their teachers directly participated in blind football training sessions and matches. As a deeply marginalised and often stigmatised group, these young people benefited enormously from having access to things that others often take for granted. They were able to fulfil their right to play, which is so often denied to them through no fault of their own. The improvements in confidence and self-esteem will have also have untold benefits on their health, well-being and educational attainment.
The teachers, who work with visually impaired children every day, were taught how to prepare games and training sessions and enable their students to do something they love. The games contributed to a positive sense of community between the schools and they expressed a strong desire to continue collaborating and enabling competitive sport between their students.
Grace has been working with the visually impaired for 24 years and is the physical education and French teacher at Thika School for the Blind.
The secondary section has 220 pupils in the age range of 15 to 20 years and integrates students both blind and able bodied. The school has been operational since 1967 but the visually impaired students rarely participate in any form of competition. She says playing sports boosts self-esteem, encourages teamwork and improves the motor skills of the students.