Emma’s dreams of balance beams


Emma Planson, who is blind, learns gymnastics techniques with assistances from Hailey McManus at Mountain Brook Gymnastics. Photo courtesy of Lori Planson.

When Lori Planson approached Mountain Brook Gymnastics about her daughter, Emma, taking gymnastics, the gym’s staff didn’t hesitate to say yes. It didn’t matter to the coaches and board of directors that Emma was blind.

“When she came to me, it wasn’t a question of if we would teach Emma but of how was the best way to go about it,” board of directors vice president Chantal McManus said.

Emma, a kindergartner who attends public school, was born with Bilaterial Microphthalmia. She wears prosthetic eyes with a clear pupil, which allow her to use her residual vision.

Just as Emma learns Braille and other non-visual methods at school, she learns gymnastics through auditory and tactile methods.

Often gymnastics skills are taught to children by visually modeling them, but Emma must learn by repetition so that she can develop muscle memory for the positions.

In order to best teach Emma, the gym consulted with a teacher for the visually impaired as well as a cheernastics gymnast who is blind. Leila Owen, a gymnastics coach with 25 years of experience, started showing Emma how she should interpret words like “vault” and “backbend” in private lessons.

“Even the first time she just grabbed a bar with her hands and hung on was exciting for her,” McManus said. “It seems a very simple thing, but it is one that you wouldn’t know about if you hadn’t seen it. Gymnastics has opened up a whole new venue of life experiences for Emma.”

Gymnastics will also help Emma strengthen her upper body, which is often weak in people who are blind.

In June, Emma began to learn with a class of six other beginner gymnasts her age with an additional coach to provide verbal and tactile instruction for her.

Hailey McManus, McManus’ daughter who is a senior at Mountain Brook High School and has been a gymnast since age three, assists Emma during class. Emma holds Hailey’s arm so she can move from place to place in the gym. This human guide allows her to move around the gym safely without a white cane.

All the gymnasts get a sticker for a job well done at the end of a class. For Emma’s class, stickers are tactile with smiley faces with raised lines or a print/Braille word.

Hailey has been planning to become a vision teacher like her mom, so working with Emma is a learning ground for her too. Because there are few vision teachers in the U.S., having a second generation of people like Hailey has generated a lot of excitement in the profession.

This fall another child with low vision began attending a Mommy and Me class at Mountain Brook Gymnastics, and according to McManus, she absolutely loves it.
Having a gym open to readily teaching all children is exactly what McManus had hoped for.

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