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Self-defense class is for blind kids but teaches universal safety tips

Blind and low-vision students learn from the best to prepare for the worst. Lots of the tips apply to people who aren't blind, too.

On a recent Saturday morning, in a community center room in Edmonds, self-defense instructor Andy Arvidson asks a group of nine children and teenagers a question that had them stumped: “What do we carry with us all the time that’s our first act of self-defense?”

“Your limbs,” one girl says. “Your elbows,” another girl across the room suggests.

Eleven-year-old Sydney Agers lands on the correct answer: “Oh, your voice,” she says triumphantly.

Arvidson, who has been legally blind for more than four decades as a result of diabetes, explains to the group sitting in a semicircle around him that what they also carry with them is their self-confidence.

“If you walk confidently, people will bother you less,” he says.

His advice comes during a two-hour self-defense class for a group of 9- to 16-year-olds, almost all either blind or visually impaired.

The class, called Sightless Self-Defense, was started by the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind, and has been held at least five other times in various parts of the state over the past 12 months. People as old as 21 are welcome to attend these classes, which provide an introduction to defending yourself in a variety of situations.

But these self-defense courses are just one of the many types of workshops offered to young people across the state who are blind or visually impaired by the department throughout the year. They include everything from a healthy eating class and emergency response workshop, to a ski tripwith one-on-one instruction.

PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

The self-defense class was taught by Arvidson and his wife, Collette, both fifth-degree black belts in the traditional Korean martial art of Soo Bahk Do. They also run Anacortes Soo Bahk Do, a martial-arts studio.

During the class, the pair takes the students through a series of basic moves, teaching them how to break free if someone grabs their wrist or comes up behind them and puts their arms around their chest, or puts them in a chokehold. They even bring out some small boards at the end of class for each student to break, using either their hand or foot.

Beyond physical technique, the instructors teach basic exercises to boost the students’ self-awareness and self-confidence. Andy Arvidson, 69, says he views these skills as a crucial part of self-defense. If you’re aware of where you are and who is around you, there’s less chance of being snuck up on, he explains.

Toward the beginning of the course, he has the students stand in a circle and take turns saying as loudly as they can, “Get your hands off of me.” They practice breathing exercises to help them boost the volume of their voices.

Collette Arvidson explains that it’s really important to be able to make your voice loud and strong when you need to.

“Nobody’s going to even know if you’re just talking with another kid or you’re goofing off, so you have to be really verbal and say, ‘Get your hand off of me!’ so somebody can hear clearly,” she says.

PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

This is the second time that Eli McCalmont, 13, has taken the self-defense class through the services for the blind department. He said his favorite part has been learning how to get out of a chokehold.

“I think that is the worst-case scenario, and it’s good to learn that, and I think it’s a cool move,” says McCalmont, who’s from Issaquah.

Janet George, Youth Services Specialist for Washington State Department of Services for the Blind, emphasizes that these classes offer the unique opportunity for students to learn important skills from someone who is blind.

“He has been there.He knows what it’s like to be blind,” says George. “He knows what it’s like to have the need to defend yourself, and he can share his insights with the young people, and they’re going to be a lot more accepting because he and they walk the same road.”