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Three Cincinnati nonprofits are teaming up to teach tennis to kids who are blind and visually impaired

'It just knocks down the barriers for those kids'
Volunteers work with two children on Oct. 11, 2021, at a tennis clinic for kids who are blind and visually impaired.
Posted at 6:00 AM, Oct 14, 2021

CINCINNATI — Kaya Naser has no peripheral vision, no depth perception and terrible eyesight without her glasses.

But none of that stopped her from whacking tennis balls like a champion in training at Withrow University High School’s tennis courts.

“I love it,” said Kaya, a 9-year-old who also has cerebral palsy. “Because I can hit the ball.”

“And I can also hit it – that far!” she said with a dramatic swing of her racquet that sent a ball flying across the court.

Kaya was one of 14 children who took part in a free tennis clinic organized by Clovernook Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the Cincinnati Tennis Foundation. The goal is to help kids who are blind and visually impaired learn tennis -- and the confidence and life skills that come with sports.

“It’s everything,” said Juandez Scruggs, Clovernook’s adaptive sports coordinator. “You can adapt tennis, you can adapt basketball, you can adapt baseball. This gives kids a sense of hope. It gets them out of the house. It makes you feel better. It brings joy to your day.”

Juandez Scruggs is smiling in this photo. He has a short-cropped beard and mustache and is wearing a black baseball hat and a black t-shirt that says Just Do It.
Juandez Scruggs

Scruggs knows that firsthand. He lost his vision when he was 14 and was diagnosed with Leber hereditary optic neuropathy, an inherited optic nerve disease. Doctors told him he would have to give up sports, he said, but his high school basketball coach figured out a way to adapt the game for him so he could keep playing on the team.

“A lot of people may think it’s not possible. But being a blind kid myself and visually impaired, I knew that you could adapt any sport,” he said. “To make each sport adaptive, it may take a little work. But it’s possible.”

The Cincinnati Tennis Foundation so far has helped run two clinics for kids who are blind and visually impaired – one in September and one earlier this month – with more dates in the works.

“Last time we ran the clinic, I was so amazed with how many smiles there were,” said Zack Sikora, a lead coach and mentor for the Cincinnati Tennis Foundation who was an internationally ranked wheelchair tennis athlete.

Knocking down barriers

“It just knocks down the barriers for those kids to show them that they’re more capable than maybe what they think,” he said. “And I think teaching them that independence and that confidence of being able to be more independent than they were yesterday, for example, is just such an important life lesson.”

Teaching tennis to kids who are blind and visually impaired requires some adjustments.

Bright yellow and red foam tennis balls are modified so they contain golf balls filled with bells. That way the balls jingle when they bounce, hit the racquet or roll.

Eventually, Sikora said, the Cincinnati Tennis Foundation hopes to add tactile lines to the courts that the kids can feel with their feet to get a better sense for the boundaries.

Coaching has required adjustments, too.

“A neat transition from wheelchair tennis to adaptive tennis, specifically blind and visually impaired tennis, for me is instead of showing, you have to describe,” he said. “Or you have to guide them to do the motions that you want them to do.”

Zack Sikora is smiling and holding a tennis ball and tennis racquet in this photo. He's wearing glasses, a blue Cincinnati Tennis Foundation t-shirt and dark trousers, and he's seated in a wheelchair.
Zack Sikora

The Cincinnati Tennis Foundation got guidance from a Pittsburgh woman who has been organizing tennis clinics in that city for kids who are blind and visually impaired.

Organizers here learned how much variation there can be among children who are blind and visually impaired, Sikora said, and how much difference that makes in how they instruct.

“There’s different levels you need to cater to,” he said. “That’s super important to understand and know that as you’re doing a drill with a kid, if it’s too easy or too complicated, you have to adjust.”

Trained volunteers paired up with each child at the clinic, running through lessons and drills tailored to their abilities and needs so everyone feels safe, Scruggs said.

‘We don’t use the word can’t’

“I always say that playing sports is a teacher to life,” Scruggs added. “Once you play sports, it teaches you how to be disciplined. It teaches you how to be on time. It teaches you how to respect your elders. It teaches you how to get on a schedule.”

Playing sports also can help teach kids not to accept the limitations set by others.

Kaya, for example, was born at 24 weeks, said her mom, Sara Naser, and had a whole host of medical problems associated with being so extremely premature.

“The doctors in the NICU said she’d never play sports in her life,” said Kaya’s dad, Essa Naser, who questioned that assertion from the start. “She wants to be athletic.”

Kaya swims and plays soccer and basketball, too, he said.

“She’s loved every sport,” Essa Naser said.

“We don’t use the word ‘can’t’ in our house,” Sara Naser added.

Kaya, a third-grader at Leaves of Learning, is quick to explain she can’t see much of anything without her glasses.

She’s also quick to answer “nope” when asked if there is anything that she worries she can’t do because of her vision.

Kaya Naser poses with a tennis racquet and ball on Oct. 11, 2021. Her long, dark hair is in braids, and she's wearing a pink Wonder Woman t-shirt.
Kaya Naser poses with a tennis racquet and ball on Oct. 11, 2021.

After just two hour-long clinics, she said, tennis has become her favorite sport — tied with basketball.

She said she hopes other kids will try the clinic, too.

“Because the ball has a bell in it,” she said. “And, like, when you hit it, it makes like, if, seriously, there was a ball in front of me, and I hitted it, like cccccchhhhhhhh! Like straight on.”

More information about adaptive sports programs offered through Clovernook Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired is available online. The Cincinnati Tennis Foundation has information about its adaptive tennis clinics online, too.

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