Friday, October 17, 2008

Visually impaired take to self defense


With a grunt, 87-year-old Bernice Caputo thrust her knee into what she imagined was the groin of a predator. Then she elbowed him in the gut, and punched at his face with the palm of her hand.
On the other side of the room, 54-year-old Rudy Ybarra did the same, as did four other local seniors who take a weekly self-defense class at the Braille Institute.
Like all of the participants in the class, Caputo is blind, or nearly blind. But that doesn’t slow her or anyone else down.

While practicing a knee thrust, Ybarra yelled, “stop” with his booming voice and hit a red dummy pad so hard with his kneecap that the volunteer working with him nearly fell down.
“It’s exciting, I enjoy it,” he said, adding that the moves could come in handy when he least expects it.
The Braille Institute offers a number of courses for the blind, including cooking and art. But the 13-week self-defense course is the first of its kind.
Braille Institute Director Michael Lazarovits said the class has been a success, which is easily measured by the number of people who faithfully attend week after week. In yesterday’s case, six of the eight people registered for the class were present.
“If they don’t like a class they don’t come back,” he said. “It empowers people who are vision impaired to live fulfilled and successful lives.”
A lot has changed since the class began six weeks ago.
According to instructor Teri Coffee McDuffie, her students walk a little taller and seem happier since the class began.
“They’re just beaming,” McDuffie said. “It’s night and day compared to when they walked in the door.”
For more than 20 years, McDuffie, a fifth-degree karate black belt, has taught self-defense classes for women.
She’s long focused on women because she said they’re often told they aren’t able to achieve at the same level as men.
“Women are told in life that basically we’re not powerful enough to succeed in our physical prowess,” she said. The classes show “women we were fully capable all along.”
So when the opportunity arose to teach self-defense to the blind, McDuffie didn’t hesitate.
The only thing she worried about was how to go about teaching the moves, and whether the visual barrier would hamper her ability to relay technique.
But those issues haven’t been a problem. She said at least 75 percent of what she teaches her other classes is taught at the Braille Institute.
And the blind students pick up on the techniques just as quickly as people who can see, McDuffie said.
“It’s there,” she said of her students’ abilities. “They [are] like empty cups. It [is] a feast before them.”
While the class focuses on self-defense, it’s similar to many other physical activities that help boost self-esteem and confidence.
Eugenee Ward said she feels everyone, from children to grown men, should take a class in self-defense.
“It has opened up a lot of inner power I didn’t know I had,” she said.
Though none of those taking the class said they’ve ever had to get physical to protect themselves, Ward said on one cold, rainy Santa Barbara night years ago, she opened the door of a store she owned and a large man was standing there.
She said the man had no intentions to hurt her (he just wanted to sleep), but Ward said she was troubled by her fear and inability to speak.
That’s not a problem anymore. Along with learning knee and elbow thrusts, Ward said she’s learned to breathe and use her voice when confronted.
“It’s an important example of how important this class is,” she said.
Linda Distenfield, who helped get the class off the ground, said she met McDuffie while taking a self-defense class for women.
Distenfield acknowledged the growth many of the class participants have shown since the enrolling, but said she’s not surprised because she went through the same transformation.
“It was incredible,” she said of her self-defense class. “I’m standing up straighter and I feel so much better about myself.”
But just as impressive than the impacts of the class on the students is that of the students on the teacher.
“I look forward to this more than any other self-defense class I’ve done for over 20 years,” said McDuffie, who volunteers her time for the class. “It’s been the best thing I’ve ever done in my life, outside of my personal life.”

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