The Blind Judo Foundation helps blind and visually-impaired athletes achieve maximum independence through the pursuit of Judo. BJF’s Paralympic program, led by Coach Willy Cahill, helps blind judokas train, compete (often against sighted athletes) and qualify for the Paralympic Games. The BJF’s community program work with neighborhood and regional dojos to support blind and visually impaired youth and veterans as they begin, train and compete in Judo. The Blind Judo Foundation is a registered 501(c)3 organization.
Sports Destination Management: The Blind Judo Foundation has a Paralympic program; however, it also works at the local and grassroots level.
Ron Peck: We don’t have scheduled competitive events, per se, but we go to competitions around the United States so that we can create exposure for blind judo. An elite few athletes will make it to the Paralympics, but we want people to understand the benefits of the sport for people who are blind and visually impaired, and help those people find the dojos and coaches who can work with them. Ordinarily, how it works is there might be a judo event going on in a specific city; for an example, say we’re in Pensacola, and someone there will call us and we would arrange something for someone in that city to come over. We will then contact a local judo instructor and the dojo to see if they would be willing to provide some judoka to accommodate the event.
SDM: If event organizers or owners want to contact BJF for an exhibition or a clinic, how should they get in touch?
SDM: There must be specific coaching skills necessary to work with athletes who are blind or visually impaired.
Peck: True. Just because one has a black belt in judo and trains sighted athletes does not mean training the blind and visually impaired are the same. Blind athletes are quick learners yet there is more hands-on experience needed to train the blind and visually impaired. There are programs to train instructors if they would like to open their dojos (judo gyms) to the blind and visually impaired.
SDM: Are people surprised to learn that a blind athlete can compete against a sighted athlete in judo?
Peck: They are. Blind and visually athletes compete at the same level, under the same rules as sighted athletes. The only difference is the blind can actually grab the judo uniform (Judogi) of their opponent before the referee starts the match. Also, the blind and visually impaired can’t be penalized for competing out of bounds since they are not able to see that they are out of bounds. The referee will pause the athletes and bring them back into the competitive area.
SDM: Many Paralympic organizations that serve individuals who are physically handicapped say their greatest challenge is getting in touch with individuals who can benefit from their programs. Does BJF have that problem as well?
Peck: There are many organizations that are aware of blind Judo and in particular, the Blind Judo Foundation. The foundation is currently 14 years old and has made contact with organizations like the National Federation of the Blind, American Foundation of the Blind and others. However, the judo community not only locally, nationally and internationally are aware of the Foundation. Press releases and other forms of communication brings awareness to blind Judoka along with the opportunity to bring “the Gentle Art” of the ancient sport of judo. Coach Willy Cahill, Co-Founder of the Blind Judo Foundation is a name synonymous with Judo around the world.
SDM: The Blind Judo Foundation has been around for more than a decade. Was it hard to get attention for the concept of blind athletes who could compete in judo?
Peck: It was difficult at first. I remember when we were trying to get our IRS ruling as a 501 (c) 3 and it was delayed at the IRS office for the longest time because people really thought we were trying to pull something. That was unfortunate because it took us maybe three times longer than it takes the average foundation to be able to be set up. Also, all too often, “Paralympic Judo” is confused with “Special Olympics.” The blind and visually athletes of the Foundation do not have cognitive issues, only various forms of visual acuity.
SDM: What sort of changes have you seen in blind/visually impaired people who take part in judo and find this is a great new avenue for them?
Peck: Introduction and training in the sport of Judo has opened up opportunities for blind and visually impaired individuals reaching beyond the sport of Judo. Judo builds compassion, respect, confidence, character, how to make commitments, humility, and responsibility. The tenets of Judo provide confidence to reach for one’s goals and not allow blindness to thwart thinking big and setting one’s goals and opportunities. Judo is a huge confidence and relationship builder, affecting all areas of one’s life.
SDM: What do you regard as the greatest reason for the success of the organization?
Peck: Without a doubt: Coach Willy Cahill, owner of Cahill’s Judo Academy, former U.S. Olympic and U.S. Paralympic Judo coach and co-founder of the Blind Judo Foundation and his ability to create champions. The first Gold Medal won by the US Paralympic Judo Team was in 2000 in Sydney. Coach Cahill was the U.S. Paralympic Judo Coach. Judo was introduced at the Olympics in 1964 and it took 48 years for the U.S. Olympic Judo Team to win a gold medal at the 2012 Games in London. In fact, two gold medals were won in Sydney. Also, the first female allowed to complete in Paralympic Judo was in Athens in 2004 is a student of Coach Cahill and the Blind Judo Foundation. She was also the only female on the 2004 U.S. Paralympic Judo Team and won the silver medal. More recently, another blind female won the bronze medal at the recent 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. She is another student of Coach Cahill and the Blind Judo Foundation. Coach Cahill and his Instructors are very attuned to training and supporting blind/visually impaired athletes of all ages.
SDM: The most challenging aspect of many organizations like yours is getting donations
Peck: The Blind Judo Foundation is an all-volunteer Board with no one receiving a salary or stipends. Therefore to support worthy athletes, it is necessary to seek donations and funds from those individuals wanting to make a difference in the lives of the blind and visually impaired. Blind/visually impaired athletes looking to advance their skills need to attend camps, tournaments both locally, nationally and internationally, travel expenses, uniforms to name only a part of out-of-pocket expenses. Here is where funding makes the difference. If more people were aware of the Foundation, there might be more visibility and financial support.