Skating Lesson in Portsmouth Gives People with Vision Loss a Chance to Glide

Feb 12, 2017

People who live with blindness are used to finding creative ways to do things most of us take for granted. But recently a group of people with vision loss did something that surprised even them -- they went ice-skating.

***This story has lots of sound, we recommend listening.***

There’s a nervous energy in this room at the Puddle Dock Pond ice skating rink in Portsmouth as a handful of people lace up their skates.

“I’m very surprised that I said yes to this, but I need to step out and try new things. I can’t just sit inside my own little head all the time.”

That’s Randi Wilson. She’s a little nervous because it’s been forty years since the last time she was on ice. And because this time, she’ll be skating while legally blind.

Wilson is one of about a half-dozen people who are blind or visually impaired who are here to make a sort leap of faith out onto the ice.

Stephanie Hurd is with the New Hampshire Association for the Blind. Her organization partnered with Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth to put on the event. Hurd also happens to be blind herself.

“We haven’t stepped out on the ice yet today so we’re going to find out what that’s like together.”

Once they are all laced-up, sighted volunteers help the group slowly, carefully down a short slope and out onto the ice.

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

The first few moments on the ice are tentative – most of the visually impaired skaters cling to their partners or the railing.

But within a few minutes, their confidence starts to build and the anxiety that filled the room just a few moments ago begins to lift.

The skaters start to cheer each other on, someone starts playing music over the rink’s sound system, and the whole thing starts to feel a little like a party.

For Michele Clock, the sense of relief is palpable.

“The anxiety was building up. I know the heart is good because it’s pumping!”

Clock says for years she was in denial about her vision loss. She refused to use her walking cane until last year. She says, to be out on the ice is special.

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

“Well for me where I’m very, very cautious now with everything, it’s huge.”

One of the sighted volunteers helping the visually impaired skaters today is Doug Webster. He’s a professional ice skating coach and choreographer.

As he helps Stephanie Hurd with her skating technique, the two of them start to develop an acoustic language for skating.

“We’re working on sculling and fishing so if you want to try to listen to that second push. So let your feet glide out and then push back together. So listen for that push.

Was that your heel or your toe, though?

That was on my heel, now I’ll make it on the edge…”

Webster darts around the rink giving advice to the skaters and sometimes leading them in elegant, sweeping motions across the ice.

“It’s my goal in all the things I do in life to share the joy of skating. You know, finding flow and letting people feel glide.”

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

After almost two hours on the ice, many of the skaters call it a day.

But Randi Wilson – the women we first met as she was nervously lacing up her skates – is still out there, making lap after lap around the rink.

The nervousness she was feeling before is gone. It's been replaced by a determination to soak up as much of this moment as she can.

“For me this is a new thing. I’ve spent 8 years at home so I’m trying to literally force myself out of the house. I almost said no to this, but I said to myself, no, you need to try.”

And that’s exactly what she’s doing, in a pair of rented skates on a frozen pond in Portsmouth.

Wilson takes a deep breath as if to steel herself, then skates off. No guide, no hand on the railing, just the sound of the blades on the ice and that feeling of glide.