Pilates in the School for the Deaf and Blind by Mirea Sharifi

Today’s guest post is by POLESTAR® Mentor Mirea Sharifi, PMA® – CPT, from Tucson, AZ.

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This year I volunteered to work with three young female students, ages 12, 18 and 21, who are impaired and have varying levels of cognitive ability.  The students’ Orientation and Mobility (O&M) specialist made arrangements for them to come to my Pilates studio once a week during the academic year.  The responsibility of the O&M specialist is to teach individuals with visual impairments to travel safely, confidently and independently in their environments.  In collaboration with the O&M specialist, I designed a Pilates program to help the students increase their leg strength, improve their reciprocal movement and develop a sense of rhythm.   These are necessary skills for the students to be able to master the cane-walking technique, where the objective is to sweep with each step in a rhythmic fashion.

Our team of three volunteers taught weekly Pilates sessions using the Reformer, Wunda Chair, Cadillac, Spine Corrector and Mat Work.  This was a new experience for all of us, so there were no preconceived ideas of what to expect.  The first day of class brought tears of fear and anger to the eighteen-year-old when we started by putting a textured ball under her bare foot for the first time.  I quickly learned to introduce anything new by having them first feel with their hands.

Before Pilates
This photo was taken at the beginning of the academic year 2013. Low tone of trunk musculature results in poor access to braille.

Our oldest student speaks both Spanish and English.  She would often repeat words or phrases from class in Spanish.  One day while working on the chair, I encouraged the movement to be “smooth”, to which she responded by saying “suavemente.”  Being a fan of Latin music and dance, I was reminded of the song Suavemente by Elvis Crespo.  I repeated the word in Spanish to the tune of the song.  Without hesitation and to our surprise, the student continued to sing the chorus of the song, while the rest of us joined in as the back up vocals.  As we sang, we worked on rhythm while doing reciprocal seated footwork, 8 counts to tempo and 8 counts double time, repeat.

The concept that appeared to have the biggest impact with our youngest student, who we’ll call Lily here, was axial elongation.  To help encode it, the homework for that week was to learn how to spell elongation.  Lily came back the next week and proudly spelled “e-l-o-n-g-a-t-i-o-n.’’  On the last day of class, I watched proudly as the three girls confidently entered the studio and independently made their way to the reformer to begin their Pilates session.

In April, a month before the end of the academic year, I received some unexpected feedback from the speech-language pathologist at their school about Lily.  She emailed, “You are making a huge difference in one of my students’ lives.  She reads and writes so much more efficiently because of you!!!  Thank you.”

A couple of weeks later, I visited the school for the deaf and blind to experience a day at the school.  I will be introducing Pilates into the after school program this year, and this visit would provide necessary insight.  I observed the music class, physical education, and a session of the speech-language pathologist with Lily and another student.  In this session, they worked on reading and writing on a special device called a BrailleNote.  A BrailleNote is a computer made by HumanWare for persons with visual impairments.  It is a small box that has a braille keyboard, speech synthesizer and a Braille display.

After Pilates
After 8 months of Pilates, once a week, the same student demonstrates good trunk support.

As I watched the students, I learned what reading and writing is for a person who is visually impaired.  The speech-language pathologist looked at me and said, “This wasn’t possible at the beginning of the year.”  She shared how she had spent most of her energy trying to get Lily to sit upright.  At that moment, it all came together for me.  Readers of braille should have nice curved fingers and use just their fingertips to read, an impossible task without good trunk support.  Lily had arrived at our studio with little to no awareness of body posture, most likely due to the lack of visual input.  She was often sliding off of the chair and practically onto the floor like a wet noodle.  As I watched Lily work on her BrailleNote device, tears came to my eyes I as realized how our work in the studio had made a difference.

At the end of the semester, I received this message from the Orientation and Mobility specialist about Lily.

Last week I was walking into the Middle School when the fire alarm went off for a fire drill. I noticed (Lily) and her class responding to the fire drill by changing the direction they were walking.  I walked over to support her.  Recently, I started working with her on changing techniques with her regular cane.  The two things we were focusing on were:  1) to sweep with each step in a rhythmic fashion and 2) to turn her palm more towards the sky so that she had better control over the weight of the cane; this gave her better control and actually helped her keep it centered. After a short period of time, I praised her for doing such a great job, remembering the two important things to improve her cane techniques, and told her how proud of her I was for maintaining the good cane techniques. She turned to me and said, ‘Look at my spine – I am maintaining my elongation.’  It was true; she was standing there nice and tall and keeping it all together while walking.

I would like to encourage you to think outside of your practice and reach out into your community to identify an individual or individuals who might benefit from your expertise but may not have the financial means.  If you are not sure where to start, speak with your clients: they are a direct link to your community.  While investing in our communities, we can make differences beyond our expectations!

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Mirea Sharifi has been teaching for over 20 years. She served as Assistant Director and Choreographer for the internationally acclaimed group, Up with People and on the dance faculty of Ballet Arts in Tucson, Arizona.  She is a graduate of the University of Arizona School of Dance and founded BodyQuest Pilates in 2002.  Mirea is a Pilates Method Alliance® Certified Pilates Teacher.  A student of Pilates since 1999, Mirea has studied with Pilates Master Teachers Ron Fletcher, Michele Larsson, John White, Madeline Black and Ruth Alpert, and she is a Mentor for the Polestar Pilates Teacher Training Program.  She has completed Body Reading/Posture and Movement, and Anatomy Trains for the Movement Therapist with Tom Myers, author of Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists.

*Photos of “Lily” courtesy of School for the Deaf and Blind

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