When 12-year-old Josh Hildebrand lined up for a mile run at River Legacy Park last month, his only competition was his fear of his unfamiliar surroundings.
Josh, who has been blind since birth, had limited his running to the Asa Low Intermediate School gymnasium and the concrete walking path on the campus.
But with the help of adaptive P.E. Coach David Jimenez, who served as a guide by tethering himself to Josh with a kitchen towel, Josh finished the mile with his best time ever – 12 minutes, 56 seconds.
It was a confidence booster.
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“I know it’s important for me to do this again,” said the sixth-grader. “It’s mostly like, having a goal to succeed.”
Josh encounters an obstacle course every day at school, where he navigates the hallways and classrooms at a brisk pace with his cane.
Josh is the only Asa Low student who is blind, and one of only three in the district, said Shay Utley, part of a eight-person vision impairment department that assists those students and many others with varying degrees of vision loss.
The staff includes two specialists who translate classroom assignments and other documents into Braille, the tactile system that uses raised dots to represent words and letters.
Utley travels among 12 campuses, teaching visually impaired students “how to get around in their schools and in the community.“
Josh is learning and already using Braille, but gives it a mixed review.
“It’s OK, but I just wish I didn’t have to lug that heavy Braille thing all around campus,” he said, referring to the awkward, seven-key Brailler that he uses to read and write in class. The lugging is worse in crowded halls between classes. “When you hit someone with it, it hurts.”
Utley said technology is on its way to help Josh. She said it likely will be a small keypad that can attach to an iPad computer tablet.
In an interview at his school Friday with his mother Tanya Powers, Utley and Jimenez, Josh showed off the fiery redness of his neck and arms, the result of hours in field-day activities at school Thursday. He was a little fidgety; several times his mother and Utley pulled his hands away from his face and told him not to rub his eyes.
Josh said he’s taking medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He didn’t know the name of the medication.
“My grandfather calls it ‘Act Right,’” he said.
Josh was blind at birth because of retinopathy of prematurity, a condition in which the optic nerves do not fully develop and attach properly to the light-receiving linings at the back of the eyes.
He grew to school age not knowing his vision was any different from other kids.
“When he started going to school, he started asking more questions,” Powers said. “I have basically raised him to feel that he sees, just differently. He doesn’t see with his eyes, he sees with his hands.”
His blindness isn’t total darkness. He can distinguish light images from shadows, such as dark grass from light pavement. He also can see red if it’s contrasted sharply with another color, Josh and his mother said.
“I have the option to put him in a blind school, but I wouldn’t dare take him from this,” Powers said. “His teachers are awesome.”
Josh said his favorite subject is math, and then had to search for words to explain why.
“It’s because I understand it when other people don’t,” he said. “When I get a problem right, it’s like, ‘Yes, I finally understand that.’”
Josh picked up running when he was a student at Charlotte Anderson Elementary School, and quickly learned about the pitfalls of such an activity for someone with such a disadvantage.. One day he tripped over his pants leg while running laps in the Anderson gym and chipped his tooth.
Now he’s learning to distinguish between caution and fear.
“I had to just kind of let go,” Josh said.
Josh and Jimenez, who works with Josh as well as special education students at 11 schools, also have been practicing tandem running since March, and choosing something to tether the two wasn’t easy.
“We tried different things,” Jimenez said. “We tried bungee cords and different types of stringy materials. And we were kind of holding them wrong. Out of all the things we tried, Josh liked the kitchen towel. That’s what he likes holding onto.”
“The towel,” Josh added, “just seemed easier than anything else.”
Because Josh would be leaving the familiar gym floor for his first visit to the River Legacy trails – it was a fund-raiser for Arlington High School’s after-prom party – Utley called the Lighthouse for the Blind office in Fort Worth for guidance.
Bettina Dolinsek, Lighthouse wellness specialist, answered the request. She was fine with the towel tether but had tips to help Josh improve his running posture, and she urged him keep directly behind his running partner so he can react better to warnings of a curve in the path or a low-hanging branch.
“I think it’s great. I hope he continues,” said Dolinsek, who also has been blind since birth, having developed congenital glaucoma and cataracts. Much of her job is getting visually impaired people into sports and other physical activities.
“A lot of blind people are sedentary,” he said. “They’ll use the computer all the time or watch TV all the time. A lot of blind people get diabetes. We encourage everyone to get active. I think we should give the same message to the blind community as well.”
Jimenez said Josh’s success at running helps make up for having to avoid so many other activities that are too risky for a blind person.
“It’s tough for him to do everything in P.E.,” Jimenez said. “But running is something he can do.”
The confidence he has gained from taking the challenge of running goes well beyond the sport. Sometimes he envisions himself in near-heroic scenarios.
“In life or death situations, if I needed to save someone’s life, I could rescue them,” he said. “I know I could do it.”