Mind Over Matter

A visually impaired woman’s path to becoming a national judo champion

Tuyen Tran’s path to independence and self-empowerment began seven years ago, the day she set foot in the dojo for her first judo class. Visually impaired since birth, by the age of 12 Tyuen had already undergone three separate eye surgeries to correct cataracts. But the health problems didn’t end there, at the age of 15 Tuyen underwent yet another surgery, this time to repair a leaky heart valve.

With limited vision and a weak heart, it was with great trepidation that Tuyen took those first few steps onto the mat. It wasn’t “love at first throw,” but over the weeks and months that followed her confidence grew slowly as did her sense of spatial awareness and her balance. The latter being extremely important for those living with visual impairments, as they are more prone to falls related to the uncertainty of movement.

(Tuyen, top)

Judo, known in martial arts circles as “the gentle way” is particularly helpful for individuals with visual impairments as it relies primarily on one’s sense of touch, grip and balance. It also teaches techniques for falling safely and rolling, and of course self -defense. These techniques can make all the difference in preventing injuries for the visually impaired in real life scenarios.

According to the World Health Organization, Vietnam is home to approximately three million visually impaired people. In this country, visual impairments and poverty often go hand in hand because more than 50 percent of Vietnam’s visually impaired are suffering from conditions like cataracts that are treatable and even preventable if they had access to early detection and corrective treatments.

While cataracts are often thought to affect older people, in countries like Vietnam they are a huge problem for children too. Cataracts can be present from birth, or may develop as a result of eye injuries. Although cataracts are not difficult to treat, it’s vital for children that the condition is caught early or it can cause the eye to stop developing, meaning sight can never be properly restored, as was the case for Tuyen.

In Vietnam, employment options for the visually impaired are limited. The “luckiest” are able to find employment in IT but for many, the best-case scenario is to be a massage therapist, as “blind massages” are popular with tourists. Those less fortunate and stuck in a cycle of poverty mostly sell lottery tickets or beg for a living.

Visually impaired women face additional barriers integrating into Vietnamese society since they are much more vulnerable to harassment and sexual violence. As a result, many visually impaired women feel safer at home and are not fully active in society at large, living a more sedentary and isolated existence. This isolation keeps them in a cycle of dependence on caregivers, unable to undertake simple daily activities and more likely to fall prone to low self-esteem, depression and anxiety all linked to low self-efficacy.

Tuyen is the exception to every single one of these rules. Despite being raised in difficult circumstances she manages a life of independence in which judo plays a big role. Tuyen lives independently, a rarity for a young woman in Vietnam, let alone one with a disability and sells cosmetics over the Internet. After multiple surgeries to restore as much sight as possible and with the aid of glasses, her vision is still less than 50 percent but it is enough to manage some computer work which helps her make ends meet.

She’s a spirited young woman who says she loves fighting. “It makes me feel like a warrior,” says Tuyen. “When I’m fighting, I feel relaxed and excited at the same time.” Her favorite technique is the Ippon Seoi Nage, a one-armed shoulder throw and one of the highest scoring judo techniques in a competition. Tuyen dreams of a career in digital marketing “so I can expand my online cosmetics business, but mostly so I can help my dojo and encourage more visually impaired women to train and learn to protect themselves.”

Dr. Dai Nghai Ly, Executive Vice President of the Vietnam Judo Federation, explains that judo is an excellent choice of physical activity for the visually impaired and is the compulsory physical education required for all students in the Blind Schools throughout HCMC beginning in Grade 2. The main difference in the practice is that for the visually impaired, the grips are secured before a fight and then training and muscle memory just kick in.

Dr. Dai explains that “Judo is an all-encompassing sport that challenges many elements of human movement such as strength, flexibility, balance, coordination and agility.” Improving any of these five pillars can have an extremely meaningful impact on a visually impaired person’s life on or off the mat.

Instructors use two main methodologies to train visually impaired judokas; auditory and kinaesthetic. Through the auditory learning technique, the instructor speaks or makes a sound, such as clapping to cue or thoroughly explain a technique. Through the kinaesthetic method, the instructor executes a technique on the student and encourages them to touch and feel the angle of their body, the grips and the momentum needed to execute a throw correctly. These work best in tandem, slowly talking a student through a technique while executing it at the same time.

“Frankly, it’s not very different from training sighted judokas,“ says Dr. Dai, “at least from a trainer’s perspective. In fact, it is not uncommon for visually impaired judoka’s to train or fight with sighted competitors because very few accommodations are needed in this sport.”

Unsurprisingly at first, many visually impaired students are afraid of the throws and falls so the instructor’s main role is to work on making them feel more comfortable and confident on the mat. An instructor may begin a class with an orientation of the room and mat area. This allows the visually impaired individual to become aware of his or her surroundings through exploration and verbal descriptions, noting any potential hazards and allows the student to be as self-sufficient as possible. This basic orientation is generally followed up with games and exercise drills, which first create a sense of trust and community amongst the judokas and the instructor. Once everyone is comfortable with falling and rolling, the class will move on to real techniques and eventually fights.

Dr. Dai is no stranger to coaching Tuyen to reach her full potential, in fact, he was her coach in 2018 when she fought and won the gold medal at the National Para Games held in Danang last April. According to him, “Tuyen is an exceptional athlete. She learns techniques so quickly and performs them with such efficiency. She’s just brilliant.” Under his coaching, Tuyen trains three times a week at the HCMC Sports Center alongside two other champion judokas who are also visually impaired. Once a month, she trains with a sighted team and more than keeps up.

Seven years since her first judo class, today at the age of 21, Tuyen is one of the top visually impaired female judokas in Vietnam but she has her heart set on something even bigger, to compete internationally at the ASEAN Paralympic Games in 2020. Needless to say, this will take a lot of time, dedication, sweat and training, but she’s up for it. The mat is after all where she feels her best.

Images by Vy Lam

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1 thought on “Mind Over Matter”

  1. What a great story. congratulations for the perseverence and showing sheer enjoyment and skill in this very physical sport. I wish you all the best Tuyen.,

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