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      The StringBall experience

      A closeup of hands on a StringBall as Iowa Department for the Blind Orientation Center students prepare to play at Gray's Lake Park, Des Moines.A line from a popular movie once declared “there is no crying in baseball.” Students attending the Iowa Department for the Blind (IDB) Adult Orientation and Adjustment Center had an opportunity to try out this attitude during a recent foray into the green spaces of Des Moines, Iowa. There, they experienced a fun non-visual variation of America’s favorite national pastime called StringBall.

      The Orientation Center is an important component of the services offered by the agency. Begun by blindness rehabilitation pioneer Kenneth Jernigan after he came to Iowa in 1958, the Center has primarily focused on providing attendees with a practical curriculum in the “skills of blindness.” Based on the idea of structured discovery, students are given tasks and challenges that allow them to engage in problem solving, working situations out for themselves, and internalizing their gains as knowledge and skill. These progressive attainments serve them well as they become more fully prepared to face the challenges of living and working in today’s world as a blind person. An oft-repeated phrase in the Center states that “a class is a class is a class.” What does that line mean? It conveys the idea that experiential learning may take many, sometimes unexpected, forms. Orientation Center students periodically participate in “extracurricular” activities; a departure from their regularly scheduled classes in computer skills, cane travel, industrial arts, and home economics.  

      Iowa Department for the Blind Orientation Center teacher and students walk to Gray's Lake Park, Des Moines on a recreational trail.On a recent hot, humid day in late June, the entire class body set out through the streets of downtown Des Moines on foot, canes in hand. Students soon found themselves navigating the recreational trail that leads into Des Moines’ popular Gray’s Lake Park. A walk of almost three miles, the full range of travel techniques were put into play, but that was just the beginning of the day’s activities.

      After all of the students had arrived at their destination, Orientation Center supervisor Shawn Mayo introduced the game of StringBall, a non-visual variation of baseball that uses a Zip n’ Hit Pro hitting trainer. Shawn, IDB Technology director Emily Wharton, and former co-worker Zach Ellingson developed the game while all three worked at BLIND, Inc. in Minneapolis. With the help of Center teacher, Nami Wallace, the rules of the game were explained to the students. As Nami later put it: Iowa Department for the Blind Orientation Center teacher and students on the pitching end of a StringBall game at Gray's Lake Park, Des Moines prepare to launch the ball.“Students coming into the Orientation Center often feel limited in what they can do with their vision loss; this includes participating in competitive sports. StringBall is a great game that uses a softball-like ball that slides on a string. One end of the string is anchored to a tree or pole and the other is held up by a player. The game is similar to Baseball--one team will be at bat while the other is holding up the other side and pitching. The pitcher throws the ball down the string toward the batter, who tries to make contact with the ball. There is a line about halfway to serve as a foul line. We placed a cane on the ground as a tactile marker. The goal of the batter is to hit the ball past that line. This fun game incorporates many skills and techniques taught in the Orientation Center such as the ability to utilize your other senses to obtain information. Problem-solving is also a very important skill stressed in the Center and is put into play with this game. One example is figuring out how high or low to swing the bat. Ultimately, it is very easy to find yourself in the competitive spirit with this game and it demonstrates that you can be active and have a blast regardless of your vision loss.”

      An Iowa Department for the Blind Orientation Center student takes her turn at batting practice as runners pass by at Gray's Lake Park, Des Moines.Shawn indeed reminded the budding sluggers that “there’s no crying in baseball” and everyone soon got into the spirit of the game. As the Center students took turns at batting practice and dishing each other a little grief, both participants and spectators found out there is both smiling and laughing in StringBall. For many of the players, the unsureness of their first tentative swings of the bat at the sound of the approaching ball gave way to the confidence experienced from a solid connection and the crack of the bat. Runners and cyclists passing by on the bike trail smiled and nodded with interest as they took in the growing enthusiasm surrounding the game. One of the students was heard to remark, “This is really fun, I like this,” before making another scoring hit.

      Time passed quickly as the Center students explored this new spatial and interpersonal territory--so quickly that an approaching storm went mostly ignored until a downburst of rain ended the game and the lessons for the day. Besides taking a little extra water back to IDB, the Center students also took with them their own unique accomplishments, an additional dose of confidence, and a question in their minds of when the next StringBall game may occur.

      If you want to know how to play the game, download the StringBall rules here.

      To see more photos of the StringBall experience go to  IDB's facebook page. Please give us a “Like” while you are there.

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      More Feature Stories:

      More New Faces at IDB
      New Faces at IDB
      IDB Welcomes New Orientation Center Director
      Audio news from the Library for Summer 2014
      June 3, 2014 and June 6, 2014 Iowa Commission for the Blind board meeting audio

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