Learning to Fence

lepofsky_dow_fencing-300x241Below is a written account of David Lepofsky’s first fencing lesson at the Carroll Center for the Blind.

On July 23, 2013, I had the pleasure of taking an amazing lesson in fencing, designed for blind people like me, and taught by Rabih Dow, a totally blind instructor. This 1-hour lesson was provided at and by the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Massachusetts.

It was utterly extraordinary. My instructor and I stood in the All Purpose room in the main building of the Carroll Center, outfitted with chest protectors and masks, and each armed with a foil with a small rounded tip. We faced off with a carpet under our feet on my left side, and a wood floor on my right side, using the shoreline between the two surfaces to position ourselves.

My instructor did an absolutely amazing job of walking me through a series of moves and counter moves. He magnificently linked each to principles of orientation and mobility used by blind people to navigate using a white cane. He patiently and superbly detected, critiqued, and built upon my many mistakes to help me build some basic skills.

I came to quickly agree that fencing is a fantastic way for blind people to refine their sense of their position in space, their balance, their coordination, their concentration, and their planning for movement and action. I had to concentrate on the positioning of my feet, my fencing hand, my back and posture, my teacher’s foil, his voice, and from all of that, the position of the rest of his body, at all times. My hearing was being curtailed somewhat by my mask. That seriously limited my capacity to use echo location. Add to that the fact that my coordination isn’t great (beyond the fine-motor activity of keyboarding). At the start, I could not imagine getting better than my initial ham-handedness today, but feedback from my instructor suggested that I was making some progress.

I would encourage anyone with vision loss who has the chance to give fencing a try.

I have the advantage of having had limited, but quite useful eyesight in my teens. Though I have been totally blind for over 35 years, I have enough visual memory of fencing to understand what I was being taught to do, and to understand each time my instructor constructively guided me on what I was doing right or wrong. Of course those memories stretch back about four decades.

For people who were born blind, this would also be a phenomenal way to enhance their understanding of many important spacial concepts that sighted people, and those of us who lose our sight partway through life, easily and incidentally learn visually without instructions.

I am deeply indebted to the Carroll Center, to their wonderful community relations/communications representative, Geno Carter, and to the incomparable Rabih Dow for affording me this wonderful opportunity. Moreover, Rabih Dow is an excellent role model for how a blind person can be an amazing fencing instructor for other blind people. After today’s 1-hour experience, I am eager to find more opportunities to learn this fencing skill. I gather that the Carroll Center is one of the only places, if not the only place, where this quality of fencing training is available for blind people.

In both the still photo and the video, I am seen in the All Purpose room (main building of the Carroll Center), standing a few feet away from my instructor, Rabih Dow. We are facing each other. We are each wearing our regular clothing. Over our clothes is a plastic chest guard that is likely not visible. Over it, we are both wearing essentially a heavy cloth jacket and a helmet that covers the entire head, with a mesh screen in front, and no openings for our ears.

We each hold a foil that is a few feet long. The foil has a rounded tip. The handle is like a white cane handle, with a curved metal shield protecting our hand. We each wear a single glove in our fencing hand. I am using my left hand. Rabih wore his glove on his right hand.

I am wearing shorts and sandals under this equipment, as well as a short sleeve shirt that is not visible.

The still photo shows us in the en garde position. My left arm is extended, holding my foil out towards Ribah. His right arm is doing the same. Our foils are crossed, each angled upwards. I am on the right in the picture. We are facing each other, ready for action.

In the video, we start in roughly the same position. I say “Ready.” Rabih then says “Fence.” I go at him with my foil and hit his right arm, which shows just how poor my aim was. I learned that my overall tendency to walk directed to the left is reflected in my fencing. I would need a good deal of training to be more aware of this, and to counteract it. That is just one great example of how this training can be so useful for blind people as a way to improve such things as their orientation and mobility skills.

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