Blind and low-vision seniors dance and bowl with Microsoft Xbox games

"You go girl!" "You got this!" Shouts of encouragement echo through the main auditorium at VISIONS at Selis Manor (a senior center in midtown Manhattan) as participants take turns stepping up to face the bowling alley on the screen. As each bowler winds back their arms to release an invisible ball towards the pins on the screen, an instructor or an on-screen announcement describes what's happening: "you knocked two pins down!" or "strike!" The group applauds, laughs and cheers. This is not your typical bowling tournament—not only because the pins are virtual, but because the bowlers are visually impaired. While some cannot see the screen at all, it hasn't stopped them from enjoying the game. "Last week, it had us laughing until we cried!" says Mildred, 65, from Brooklyn. She comes to the center every week to bowl. "My favorite thing about the Kinect is that you don't have to know how to bowl."

A yoga mat on the floor lets her know where to stand so she is facing the screen (a subtle, tactile cue that might go unnoticed to a sighted person). And sounds of cheering from the Xbox alert her when she's knocked down pins or bowled a strike or a spare. She laughs uproariously when informed that her ball went out of the lane and in to the virtual crowd. "Did I hurt someone?" she asks, laughing, "I hope not!" Rosalie, 70, from Forest Hills also bowls every week at VISIONS. For her, the activity provides not only exercise, but an opportunity to socialize and make friends. "It's fun, and it's challenging," she says. Though it may take her a little longer to learn the game than a sighted person, she embraces the challenge—and appreciates the payoff. "I'm not that competitive of a person, but if you're playing in a team, of course you want the team to win," she says, "It's exciting."

The Exergamers NYC project, which merges technology with exercise, was made possible by a public-private partnership between Microsoft, NYC Department for the Aging (DFTA), and NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT). The program has flourished at various senior centers, but because of the visual component, it was first met with some trepidation at VISIONS. Some seniors, like Rosalie, were hesitant. "How can I play if I can't see the screen?" she remembers thinking. But contrary to expectation, she, Mildred and many other residents and visitors at the center have proven they can learn the activity, and thrive at it. Though clients at VISIONS at Selis Manor have a unique set of needs, the program has triumphed here.

VISIONS at Selis Manor is the only senior center in NYC to specialize in clients with severe vision loss and blindness. It serves thousands of people from all five boroughs—ranging from those with some vision loss to those who are completely blind. Many clients have some residual vision, while some have retained memories of sight. With the help of the staff and volunteers, the center assists its clients in developing the tools necessary to do any task that sighted people can do—from using computers, to exercising, to navigating the city streets, to managing finances. "Our programs promote independence, and we try to assist people with vision loss to achieve their highest level of independence and accomplishment," says executive director Nancy Miller. "Our goal is to help the person do everything they want to do, but in a non-visual way." The center even offers photography classes, using special lighting, cameras, and help from volunteers. "People want to take photographs even if they can't see it because their grandchildren can see it, or their friends can see it," Miller explains. She says “Exergaming is empowering in a similar way. While the videogames are primarily a visual medium, the fact is that it can still be learned, demonstrating that nothing is off limits to people with vision loss.”

Because it is both accessible and safe, exergaming is uniquely suited to the needs of low vision seniors, Miller explains. Maintaining health and physical fitness can be particularly challenging for this population. “Research has shown that people with vision loss, are much more sedentary than the sighted population," she says. "They're much more afraid of falling. Because of the health conditions that may have caused the vision loss, they may be afraid of moving around and are concerned about medical and health complications." Even walking or using an exercise machine can be difficult for them. But virtual sports like bowling and Zumba offer cardiovascular benefits without the risks involved in other forms of exercise; there are no sharp objects, heavy weights to lift, or complex fitness machines to operate. "We take safety very seriously here, and we encourage people to exercise safely," says Miller. "The Xbox provides that opportunity in a way that no other fitness program does."

And unlike climbing up stairs or walking on a treadmill, exergaming has the added component of being a social activity. Sighted people may take for granted the ease with which they can do daily activities, like riding a bike, grocery shopping and riding the subway. But those with low or no vision may have some difficulty with these activities—which can lead to isolation. Group activities, such as bowling or dance, can help them regain a sense of belonging. "It is not only encouraging exercise and physical activity and a healthier lifestyle, but it's also something that is mentally engaging and gives seniors the opportunity for social conversation," says Miller. "Here is an activity that they're doing together, they egg each other on. They get invested in it together and then they talk about it afterward. So it becomes an opportunity to feel part of the 'in group.'"

The fact that exergaming offers access to a mainstream and cutting edge technology also adds to its appeal. Many of VISIONS' clients are low-income and have little access to technology like Kinect for Xbox. Though the center also has a fully equipped fitness center with personal trainers, the exergaming program is far more popular. "The seniors love the idea that they're playing a game similar to what their grandchildren play or something that is state-of-the-art, or cutting edge," says Miller. "They're always feeling that as somebody who's blind and somebody of low income, they never get 'the latest.' And here, they've gotten some of the latest equipment to try."

The center has hundreds of volunteers, some of whom have low vision themselves. Yvonne Whitehurst, a former VISIONS client, supervises Xbox bowling a few times a week. As someone who is visually impaired herself, she's aware of subtle non-visual cues that can help the players, like placing a yoga mat on the floor. She also understands how invaluable it is that the exergamers program is inclusive of this population, because it demonstrates trust in their abilities. "I think, psychologically, the Xbox bowling helps them to feel that they are part of something—that they can do a lot of things," she explains, "Maybe some of them did actual bowling, and this game mentally brings them back. It makes them feel like they are still a part of society, and not just sitting on the sidelines."

One of the center's most avid exergamers is Theresa, 51, from Queens. Though she has some sight, Theresa has difficulty with spacial navigation, which makes it difficult for her to get exercise. But now, she visits the center four times a week—and never misses a bowling or Zumba class. "I enjoy myself every time," she says. "It was hard at the beginning, but every day I got better. It's fun and I love it." As Theresa's vision worsened over the past decade, she says it's gotten harder for her to leave her house and socialize. She credits exergaming with motivating her to "get out of the house and be with people." Since visiting VISIONS for exergaming, she has developed a community of friends, and says her life has drastically improved as a result.

The exergamers program has also given clients a chance to bond with some of the staff. Ann De Shazo is the Director of Selis Manor, but despite her busy schedule, she teaches Zumba once a week with the Xbox. Teaching dance moves to those who can't see the screen requires a little extra effort and patience, but De Shazo has full faith in their ability to learn. "People with vision loss have the ability to do just as much as a sighted individual; it just requires them to learn differently." In delivering the class in a way that everyone learns De Shazo has been very creative in her teaching style.  An example of her style is reflective in her decision to wear heels during the class because those who cannot see rely on verbal cues as well as the sound of her feet. She uses verbal cues to describe exactly what she's doing throughout the class, so they can visualize and mirror her moves. "You have to get creative to help the seniors understand what it is you want them to do with their bodies" she says. The program has been "beneficial across the board," says De Shazo. "They've come to realize that it's not really about learning all the steps or perfecting them, but more about having fun."

Gilda, who is in her seventies, says she enjoys the Zumba classes because she has always loved to dance. "It's like a dance class as well as an exercise class," she says. "I feel like I'm doing part of a dance routine. So that makes me feel good." Ana, who is "sixty something" and from Puerto Rico, shows up for Zumba every week because of the health benefits, saying "it helps me lose weight." She is completely blind and says it's hard for her to learn the moves, but the important thing is that she keeps trying, enjoys the process, and doesn't take it too seriously. De Shazo says the success of exergaming at VISIONS has taken everyone happily by surprise. "I think the greatest benefit is that it shows seniors that being blind or visually impaired is not a limitation, even as it relates to activities that are created for people with sight," says De Shazo, "There are no limitations, and that's what we show people here.  Because of our desire to be inclusive and not exclusive, it can be done."


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