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Ears on the ball: How the visually impaired play goal ball

By MARC JAYSON CAYABYAB

Photos and Video by VINCENT GO

THREE athletes appear on each end of the court blindfolded, assuming a crouched position in front of the goal. The referee then shouts, "Quiet please!", the signal for the athletes to listen out for the sound of the bells tinkling inside the ball.

And, as in soccer, the ball is passed from one end of the court to the other, each team making sure they catch the ball before it reaches the goal. But these athletes don't run after the ball. They crawl after it, guided only by its tinkling sound.

That is how athletes with visual impairment played the game of goalball during the Palarong Pambansa held from May 7 to 9 at the Narciso Ramos Sports and Civic Center in Lingayen, Pangasinan.

The gold went to the team from Davao region composed of Arson Desenilla, Ian Christopher Nakila and Abdul NassakBentayao who credited their victory to extreme concentration, focus and teamwork.

"Kapag maingay, yung bola hindi mo talaga marinig. Para marinig mo yung bola hindi mopapansinin yung mga tao sa paligid mo. Focus sa bola (You won't hear the bell ball when it is too noisy. That's why we have to ignore the spectators and focus on the ball)," said Nakila.

Because the game requires a quiet environment, the goalball event in this year's Palaro started at dusk.

The objective of the game is for each team to grab the bell ball before it rolls inside the goal behind each team. The bell ball used in goal ball is drilled with eight holes with bells placed inside.

Davao region coach Geronimo Balaga said goalball is a combination of basketball, soccer and volleyball. The rules of the game—free throw, time-out and pass-out—are reminiscent of basketball, while scoring a goal by rolling the ball to a net is similar to soccer. The 18-by-9-meter goalball court is the same size as a volleyball court.

Goalball is a sport specifically designed for people with low vision or visual impairment, according to Dennis Esta, executive director of the Philippine Sports Association for the Differently Abled (PHILSPADA). It has been part of the Palaro since the special events began in 2008.

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The players, categorized as totally blind and partially blind, are blindfolded to ensure fair play in the competition. They take turns assuming the center, the right and left wing positions.

The game officially starts after the referee shouts, "Quiet please!"He then shakes the ball to sound the bells before dropping it in front of the player of the first team. The team that rolls the bell ball past the opponents' defense toward the net scores a point.

Penalties are also given during the game, such as when the players make too much noise to distract their opponents, or when they remove their blindfold during the game.

Goalball, also spelled goal ball, was invented in Austria by Hans Lorenzen and Sepp Reindl in 1946,according to the website of the International Blind Sports Federation, the governing body for goalball competitions worldwide. Designed as a sport for the rehabilitation of World War II veterans with visual impairment, it was introduced to the world of sports at the 1976 Olympiad for people with disabilities (PWDs) in Toronto, Canada, and has since been played in all PWD sports competitions.

Eighteen-year-old Nakila lost his eyesight when he was 8 after he underwent an operation in Hawaii to remove the swelling between his eyes. He said his skull was filled with fluid after the operation and when the doctors drained it, complications caused the collapse of his retina.

Nakila became totally blind after the operation. But his eyes were implanted with lenses, giving him low vision up to a range of five meters.

Bentayao, also 18, said teamwork during the competition gave them an edge. Upon hearing the bells, Bentayao said he would say "Doon ang bola (There's the ball)!" instructing his teammates to crawl right or left depending on the direction of the sound to grab the rolling ball.

Bentayao has retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary degenerative disease of the retina characterized by visual problems at dusk or in low light. The doctors have told him that he would lose his eyesight entirely in five to 10 years.

The quiet 21-year-old Desenilla, who was born partially blind, attributed his team's victory to two things: "Focus at sakaserioussalaro(Focus and seriousness in the game)."

For Balaga, sharpening the athletes' sense of hearing is the way to win the competition, adding that he first trains them in a skill he calls "sound localization."

Balaga's creative ways range from throwing coins far from the delegates to banging a stone on the floor, and then asking his delegates to point the source of the sound. Through sound localization, Balaga said his athletes would be able to discern the sound of the bell ball amid the noise.

The coach, however, admitted he could not give his athletes special treatment. When they fail to determine the location of the sounds he make, he punishes them with push-ups and duck walks—just as he would with regular athletes.

Balaga is the physical education teacher of the Davao School for the Blind, which teaches students with visual impairment how to be independent. An education graduate who majored in physical education, the coach said he underwent rigid tests to prove he was up to the job to train these students.

Not all players with visual impairment have a heightened sense of hearing, though, a study showed.

Neuroscientist and experimental psychologist Robert Zatorre of the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University and the University of Montreal in Canada found in a study that persons with visual impairment do hear better only if they are born that way or lose their vision at a young age.

(VERA Files is a partner of the "Fully Abled Nation" campaign that seeks to increase participation of PWDs in the 2013 elections and other democratic process. Fully Abled Nation is supported by The Asia Foundation and the Australian Agency for International Development. VERA Files is put out by senior journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. VERA is Latin for "true.")

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