Legacy Spotlight: Paul Ponchillia

My Blindness is a Valuable Asset

Camp Abilities is an amazing camp for amazing kids. But Lauren Lieberman did not create Camp Abilities in a vacuum. She was privileged to have important mentors walk beside her and before her. Two of these important people are Paul Ponchillia and his late wife, Susan. If you have been involved in sports and physical fitness for individuals who are blind, you have likely heard their names. Paul and Susan were instrumental in the development of the Michigan Sports Education Camp for Children with Visual Impairments at Western Michigan University. The Michigan Sports Education Camp began in 1988 and was one of the first camps for children who are visually impaired which focused on sports and physical fitness. In 2020, the camp celebrated its 32nd camp.

I had read about Paul before my meeting; but reading about someone is not the same as meeting someone. I spoke with Paul for two hours and believe I could continue to talk for many more. Certainly, he is a pioneer in the area of sports education for children who are visually impaired or blind. But it’s his own story, his refusal to give in to circumstances, and his driving will to make something important out of something tragic that kept me on the edge of my seat.

Plant Diseases, Boundary Waters and Acceptance

In his first life, Paul received a Ph.D. at Iowa State University in Botany and Plant Pathology and worked as a plant disease specialist at the Tennessee State Department of Agriculture. He condensed that mouthful to, “basically, I studied plant diseases.”

While a high school student, Paul was selected for the Regional American League baseball team and played basketball for Taylor University. “Sports were a huge part of my life. Paramount in high school and college. I was wildly competitive, mostly in football and basketball.” He was also selected as Most Valuable Player for both football and basketball. “That’s pretty good for someone only 5’8”.”

In January 1974, on a hunting trip in the northern Tennessee mountains, Paul was accidentally shot in the face. “I was thirty years old. My children were 4 and 2. I left the house sighted and returned completely blind.” 

“It was unbelievably traumatic. I didn’t have time for pity. I was too consumed with anger. I was like a horse who didn’t want to be ridden. I was kicking and biting. But, you know, I finally had to deal with it.”

Before his accident, Paul had a canoe trip in the boundary waters planned with his father and two friends just eight months after losing his sight. Paul spent the winter after his accident learning how to live without sight and never expected to go on the trip. “I didn’t want to have to be nurse-maided.” 

“Get off your ass,” his father said. “You aren’t a namby-pamby.” Paul got off his ass and into a canoe. 

“It was after that trip, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be all right. Absolutely. I’m going to be alright.’”

“Blindness Was A Fuel”

Paul Ponchillia was not satisfied with “all right.” He moved to Michigan, attended Western Michigan University where he received a second Master’s degree in Blindness and Low Vision Studies. It was at Western Michigan where Paul realized his blindness was a “valuable asset.”

“I was driven to get through this program. I knew I would have to work twice as hard as the other students. I had to do the work, but I also had to figure out how to do the work. I had to bust my tail. In essence my blindness was a fuel.” 

While Paul was learning to live without vision, the US education system was undergoing its own changes. In 1975, with the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act*, most children who were vision impaired slowly switched from residential to mainstream education. While there were many benefits to mainstreaming, one of the problems was the lack of teacher training, specifically in physical education. For Paul and many others, this was unacceptable. 

“Sports are especially important for the blind student. If they can’t participate, they miss out socially. Sport teaches the student how to win but also how to lose. Sports is interactive and cooperative. And, yes, sports are important for physical health. But it’s equally – or more – important for mental health.”

“Somebody Has To Do Something”

In 1988, Paul, his wife Susan and other colleagues at Western Michigan, decided to be proactive instead of reactive and the Michigan Sports Education Camp for Children with Visual Impairments was born. The camp is run during the school year rather than in the summer. “I wanted educators to acknowledge they weren’t doing the job. I wanted them to see physical education for the visually impaired as part of the education process instead of an addendum. Teachers from all over our state [MI] saw the same problem.”

Michigan Sports Education Camp for Children with Visual Impairments separates the campers into age groups with a slightly different focus. The junior camp hosts kids aged 8-11 and focuses primarily on basic skills such as running, jumping, swimming. The senior campers start at age 12 and continue through high school graduation. At the senior camp, students are introduced to healthy eating, physical fitness and the sports promoted by the United States Association of Blind Athletes, such as track and field, wrestling, powerlifting, goalball and 5-a-side soccer. By the time of Paul’s retirement, at least 10 former campers had gone on to compete in the Paralympics and many had continued Paul’s work and became coaches. 

Beyond introducing students to physical education and sports, the camps conduct research on both ability and attitude. “The kids’ attitudes changed unbelievably after one week. They didn’t just go back and talk about a shot put. The kids joined teams and participated. After only one week, the kids saw themselves as athletes.”

But it wasn’t just the kids’ attitudes that began to change. “In 1988, I couldn’t even get a swim coach to talk to me. But finally people are more educated, more open [to inclusion].”

Along with Lauren Lieberman, Paul and Susan wrote the first textbook in the field: Physical Education and Sports for People with Visual Impairments and Deafblindness: Foundations of Instruction. Paul continued to share his knowledge and passion with over 42 publications, three books, nine educational videos. In 2000, the Michigan Athletes with Disabilities Hall of Fame enshrined Paul Ponchillia.

Convinced

Everyone – camper, parent, teacher – who walks into camp doesn’t necessarily believe children who are visually impaired can, or even should, participate. Paul speaks of one camper, a ten-year-old boy, who sat in his car having a “hissy fit”. Paul strolled into the parking lot and spoke to the child. “What I’ve discovered is that it’s not so much fear of participation but a fear of being embarrassed. Once I talked to him and he heard my story, he got out of the car. I’m convincing because I convinced myself.” By the end of the day, the boy was playing goalball.

Paul Ponchillia is still convinced in the importance of sports for himself and for everyone regardless of their sight. In 2007, he retired and later settled in Kansas. “Letting go was difficult for me but I had enough people I could trust and had confidence in. I do go back to visit – I can’t help it.”

When Paul first lost his sight, he worried he’d never again return to sports. But a tenacious father pushed him into a canoe and his confidence was restored. He used the fuel of his own blindness to change the landscape of physical education for children who are visually impaired. His blindness has been a valuable asset.

Paul still climbs in the kayak and has paddled the waters above Greenland more than once. 

For a man who lost his vision, Paul Ponchillia is a visionary.

On a side note: Paul Ponchillia is not just a professor or an athlete or a coach. Paul is a master stone carver. In the 1980’s Paul began to travel to the arctic circle to hike and kayak. The arctic circle, its people, and its seclusion became very special to Paul. “It was the closest I could come to touching God.” You can see his carvings at www.arcticstonecarving.com.

~Submitted by June Converse

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