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Blind Archer Takes Aim!

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HOYT: You obviously have a great deal of passion for archery. How long have you been shooting a bow? Who first got you interested in archery?
I first tried shooting a bow in 2000.  I had just met my husband, Courtney, and he was shooting with a friend of his.  I had a very minimal amount of vision left at that time and so he mounted a penlight  flashlight onto a compound bow, facing toward me and had me line up that light with a white target face about 15 meters away.  We tried different things like reflecting the light from the sun onto the target with a mirror and putting foil on the target.  This was really difficult and put a lot of strain on my eyes.  My vision pretty quickly deteriorated through the next couple of years and so we started looking for another method to try.  Courtney was really enjoying participating in our local archery club and shooting in California tournaments and I thought it would be fun to get involved instead of just sitting on the sidelines crocheting or doing homework.  I began searching for ideas on the internet and discovered that there were quite a large number of visually impaired people shooting in Great Britain and in Europe in general.  I wrote to British Blind Sport and asked them what technique they were using.  They wrote back and sent us pictures of the tactile archery technique which they had developed and was being used throughout Europe.  This technique is the sanctioned technique recognized by International Blind Sports Association and FITA Para-archery.  I began shooting using the tactile archery technique in the fall of 2003.  

HOYT: How long have you shot competitively? Which bow are you currently shooting?
I have been shooting competitively since January of 2004 when I first shot as a guest at the California State Indoor competition in Tulare California.  It was at that time that I began shooting at all the tournaments that Courtney shot in.  Six months later, in June of 2004, after participating in the California State Outdoor tournament, the State Archers of California voted to include visually impaired archery as an official category in California.  After this, I was able to compete legitimately with an official category.  

I am currently shooting a Hoyt Nexus recurve bow with the 9000 limbs.  I switched to a recurve bow in 2006.  The mechanics of a recurve enable me to feel more of a connection with my bow.  Unlike the compound bow that seemed to mentally disappear when I was at full draw, I am in sync with my recurve bow throughout my shot.  

HOYT: What challenges did you have when you first started shooting? Did it take a while to get comfortable behind the bow?
I’m sure I experienced the same things sighted archers do when learning to shoot a bow, but shooting a compound bow had some added complexities that went away when I switched to the recurve.  For one thing, it was hard to get my arrow to stay on the arrow rest and I couldn’t see if it had slipped off.  Also, clipping on the mechanical release took some getting used to without being able to see the string.  Now this is much simpler; the clicker on the recurve bow holds my arrow in place and shooting fingers eliminated that extra step of attaching the mechanical release.  
The greater challenges have involved tweaking the adaptive equipment I use.  My adaptive equipment consists of a foot locator and a tactile sight with a probe that is mounted on a tripod.  
The foot locator enables me to return to the same place on the shooting  line at the beginning of each shooting end.  It’s placed on the ground, across the shooting line.  I back up against it and make sure my feet are lined up along side the foot placement indicators.  I had to decide on a comfortable and consistent position for my feet within the foot locator.  It was hard to get used to having my feet in the same place every time.  I sort of felt trapped.  
My sight is mounted on a tripod and has a probe that protrudes from it which I touch the back of my hand to when I aim the bow.  I quickly discovered that the back of the hand is not very sensitive, not sensitive like the palm.  I had to figure out what would be the most comfortable and most sensitive area on the back of my bow hand to touch the sight’s tactile probe if I could even begin to be consistent with every shot.  Any variation in sight placement would cause my aim to be off by quite a bit down at the target.  This just took a lot of trial and error.  

When shooting the compound bow, I had a lot of trouble with tilting my bow at full draw and not being able to feel it.  This goes back to what I said about the bow disappearing mentally at full draw because of the let-off in poundage.  A sighted archer can see the bow, but I had a really hard time feeling this when it happen.  When I switched to a recurve bow, this became much less of a problem because there is always tension on the bow.  

One of the biggest challenges a visually impaired archer has to deal with is body sway.  Balance is important for every archer, but for me, being that I have a fixed sight, any amount of body sway will send my arrows off the target and into the grass.  It’s difficult to control without visual cues.  This is another thing that has improved since switching to the recurve bow.  Because of the let-off at full draw with a compound bow, an archer can hold the shot longer which only results in deterioration of the shot for a visually impaired archer.  By shooting a recurve bow, I can get my shot off faster and minimize the problem.  

HOYT: When were you diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa? Did doctors originally think you were far-sighted?
I didn’t know that I had retinitis pigmentosa until I was in my 20s, and even at that time the test results said the findings were consistent with retinitis pigmentosa.  By that time my vision wasn’t good enough to perform all the tests that could confirm it, but it’s obvious by the appearance of my retina and other symptoms.  I have always been legally blind and had special accommodations throughout school using  large print books and other adaptive technology as an adult.  My older brother has RP as well and, when we could, we did the best we could to fit into the sighted world and didn’t dwell on our lack of vision.  My brother is an influential attorney, a senior partner in his law firm for over 25 years and I feel I have accomplished the things that I have set my mind to with the help of a very supportive family and friends.  It wasn’t important to me or my family to put a name to it until my vision began to deteriorate after high school.  

HOYT: Did you and Courtney create your Adaptive Equipment, or did you use a design that was already established? Is the design a sanctioned design
that you must use to shoot competitively?
The design was developed by British Blind Sport and is the sanctioned equipment used in International Blind Sports Association (IBSA) and FITA Para-archery competitions.  The basic design specifications have to be adhered to, but each archer or coach can build it themselves using their own materials.  Courtney built mine and has made many improvements to the design throughout the years.  We are always coming up with something to tweak that will make it a little bit better.  He has built them for other archers wanting to try the sport.  

Basically, the adaptive equipment must be sturdy, adjustable and portable.  My foot locator was first made out of fence board and now is made of aluminum.  The tactile sight is mounted on a tripod and is indexed into the foot locator so it all becomes one piece.  

HOYT: Tell us about Discovery Blind Sports. Specifically, how did they help you get started in archery, and what roles do you and Courtney have with DBS now? What is the mission of DBS?
Actually, Courtney and I got involved in Discovery Blind Sports because he wanted me to try snow skiing.  He loved skiing and he wanted me to experience it too.  He heard about DBS and took their guide training course and became a guide for DBS about 10 years ago.  We became involved in the organization and I am currently the president of the board.  Because Courtney and I want to dedicate a lot of our time to promote archery for people who are visually impaired and get more archers competing in the United States, it has become necessary for us to begin applying for grants and do fund raising to enable us to bring archery to the various camps, schools, clubs and individuals around the country.  DBS is excited about adding archery to the list of sports they support.  With the backing from DBS, we are hoping to raise the funds needed to enable visually impaired youth and adults to join in the fun of shooting a bow and participating in competition at the world championship level if they desire.  

This is the mission of DBS:  Discovery Blind Sports is dedicated to fostering self-sufficiency in blind and visually impaired children and adults by improving their mobility, confidence, independence, and social skills through involvement in physical activities. Discovery addressed these goals by pioneering methods for teaching challenging sports to people with little or no vision, by involving families and friends in these activities, and by promoting positive public awareness of visually impaired individuals and their accomplishments.

Courtney and I love this mission because it emphasizes more than just the participation in a sport; it recognizes that these experiences can directly effect how a person feels about themselves and their capabilities, allowing them to accomplish something they had not even considered to be possible.  

HOYT: Tell us about your work at San Joaquin Delta College, and your work in adaptive technology.
While I was completing my bachelor’s degree in adaptive technology for adults with disabilities, I worked in the adaptive classroom at San Joaquin Delta College under the supervision of an extremely innovative and inspiring instructor/AT coordinator, Ted Wattenberg.  He and I began collaborating on research to discover better ways to teach adaptive technology to the disabled students at the college.  We became interested in the students reading problems and, using our research, designed a reading program that enabled students to learn to read using screen reading software on a computer.  We also developed curriculum for using mental representations to teach visually impaired students to learn to navigate on a computer using screen reading software.  I was fortunate to be able to co-present these curriculums with Ted at several professional conferences.  These curriculums really helped to change the lives of hundreds of disabled students at Delta College.  Unfortunately, last year the college made some drastic cuts in the Disability Support Programs and Services department and all of those classes are no longer being offered.  I’m currently working with Department of Rehabilitation clients, as an independent service provider, teaching them to use their adaptive technology.  Ted and I are hoping to start up a non profit that will enable us to utilize our reading curriculum again.  It’s hard to explain how rewarding it is when an adult has discovered the shear pleasure of being able to read a book for the first time ever or for the first time since losing their ability; the connectivity that happens with them and their families, friends and the goals they dare to set for themselves because of the new found hope they begin to feel.  They deserve that and we are hoping to be able to open a community center some day that can deliver that.  

HOYT: Your achievements are incredible! Tell us about the tournaments you’ve won and the records you’ve set, such as the 2007 Paralympic Archery World Championships.
When I first started shooting, I really just wanted to feel what it was like to shoot a bow.  I never expected it to take me all the way to the World Championships.  I didn’t think of myself as a competitive person, having never competed in sports in the past.  But when I tried it and discovered that this was something I could be in control of, it really inspired me to keep doing it.  I liked the idea that, once my equipment was set up and I was sighted in, it was up to me to perform that shot correctly.  No one was behind me telling me where to aim my bow; I had to work on my form and perfect my shot just like everyone else.  

So Courtney and I decided we’d like to shoot at the World Archery Festival in Las Vegas in 2005.  We contacted M.J. Rogers and he said I was welcome to participate and has been incredibly supportive of my being there for the past 5 years.  In 2006 I was thrilled when one of Great Britain’s best visually impaired archers, Sandra Nesbit, decided to travel to the U.S. to participate in the World
Archery Festival with me.  She was a real inspiration.  This tournament, which hosts around 1,600 archers, provides us with a great opportunity to expose visually impaired archery to so many people who never realized the sport would be possible for a person who is visually impaired.  It was at the World Archery Festival in 2005 that I met Mike Luper from Hoyt who has been incredibly supportive of me through the years.  And just this past February, I shot with a visually impaired gentleman from Arizona who Courtney has been coaching for the past year.  
In the summer of 2005, Courtney and I decided to shoot at the U.S. National Target Archery competition in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  Because I asked if I could shoot at this tournament, they approved a category for visually impaired archers and I was the first ever competitor in that category.  I was once again amazed at how supportive the archery community is and how inclusive of disabled archers.  
But the highlight came the following year when I was asked by U.S. Paralympics to accompany the disabled team on their trip to Korea where I participated in the Para-Archery World Championships.  There were 6 visually impaired archers amongst 300 disabled archers from 38 countries.  The visually impaired archers represented myself from the U.S., 2 from Great Britain, and one each from France, Belgium and Italy.  This was where I discovered how much I enjoyed the feeling of competition.  In the U.S. I had no one to compete against, but now I was standing on the shooting line with 5 of my peers and the feeling was exhilarating.  I surprised myself by making my way through the quarter and semi finals and all the way to the gold medal round.  I set 5 records in the women’s visually impaired category and one the silver medal.  I had to go through drug testing and everything.  I was just happy to be included in such a competition; I never expected to make it through to the medal round.  The bus driver who had shuddled us from the hotel to the field every day even bought me a tea set to congratulate me, which I display proudly along side my medal here at home.  

Last year, I was really lucky to be able to accompany the team again to the world championships in the Czech Republic.  Even though only three countries participated in the visually impaired category, it was still extremely competitive and exciting.  I was in second place going into the medal rounds, but Italy and Belgium really were on their game and took the top 2 medals.  What an honor it was to stand beside the other visually impaired archers with my bronze medal.  

HOYT: Archery is no doubt a family affair for you. Tell us how your husband and mother - and your dog, Liza - all play very important roles in your shooting.
Without the support and knowledge of my husband, none of this would have been possible for me.  Because we both shoot, we are free to spend as much time as we want practicing.  No one is waiting at home wondering how much longer we will be shooting.  We are very lucky that way.  Also, we both enjoy traveling to tournaments and meeting new people.  My mom has been invaluable to me as my spotter at tournaments.  An archer who is visually impaired needs someone to tell her where the arrow is landing on the target so that she can make the necessary adjustments.  The spotter stands behind the archer and calls out the color and clock face where the arrow lands.  The spotter also walks with the archer to the target to score and retrieve arrows.  My mom has remarked on how family friendly the sport of archery is.  It’s given us a great opportunity to see each other several times throughout the year and she has enjoyed traveling to Las Vegas, Colorado and Arizona with us.  My guide dog, Liza, is a patient companion during the long hours practicing or at tournaments.  She enjoys lying in the grass and watching the activity around her.  She’s a great traveler and has a wonderful calming effect when she puts her head in my lap for a pet.  

HOYT: You’ve achieved so much already ... what other goals do you have your sights on?
JANICE: I’m looking forward to the next Para-Archery World Championships in Italy in 2011 and I’m hoping that very soon visually impaired archery will be included in the Paralympic Games.  

HOYT: You’re definitely an inspiration and role model for visually impaired people everywhere. What do you hope to accomplish through your shooting and through your work with Discovery Blind Sports?
I hope to be able to expose more youth and adults who are visually impaired to the sport of archery.  I have two reasons for wanting more participation.  

First, the sport gives a person a great opportunity to be involved in local clubs where they will find others who are enthusiastic about the sport and eager to share their knowledge and just have fun outdoors.  This feeling of inclusion helps people feel good about themselves and can help them cross a threshold that will open up even more possibilities in their life.  

Second, there are very few visually impaired archers practicing this sanctioned technique used in competitive archery and this is a big reason why it is not been included in the Paralympic Games.  I want to encourage schools, community organizations and individuals to reach out to the visually impaired members in their community to expose them to the sport and get them in touch with others like my husband and I who have experience using the technique and can help them achieve their goals.  

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