‘It’s just so empowering’: Calgary club teaches visually impaired kids how to skateboard

Skate Bats member Grace Forsyth, 13, describes skateboarding is ‘thrilling.’ (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

A young girl in a blue helmet tentatively approaches a sloped bowl in the smooth, grey pavement at a skate park in the west end of downtown Calgary that has been marked with brightly coloured tape.

Seconds later, she travels down on her skateboard in a confident swoop, and applause meets her at the bottom.

Grace Forsyth, 13, is a member of Skate Bats, a club established in 2019 that teaches visually impaired and low-vision kids how to skateboard — and the experience, she said, is “thrilling.”

“I’m moving without moving my legs, but I still have control of where I go,” Grace said.

Seeing Grace cruise through the park with the other Skate Bats is thrilling too, for her mother, Christine Forsyth.

“It’s amazing to me to watch them,” Christine said. “Their confidence just grows every week.”

The courage and the work ethic

The members of Skate Bats live with different types and degrees of vision loss, but most are low-vision enough to be registered with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, said founder Matt Janz.

Skate Bats founder Matt Janz is hopeful Canada will start a Paralympic skateboarding team and low-vision kids could have careers in skateboarding. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

It means they have about 10 per cent vision or less — but he said the Skate Bats have a lot more in common than that.

“They have the courage and the work ethic to [skateboard],” Janz said.

“And what we’ve seen is, they’ve been learning how to skateboard better than most people could, to be totally honest.”

‘It gives me hope about losing my own vision’

Janz has a hereditary condition called retinitis pigmentosa, and he says it means he has been slowly but surely losing vision throughout his life.

He has loved to skateboard nearly as long.

“When I was a little kid, probably six years old … I think my mom bought me, like, a banana board from a garage sale,” Janz said.

“The first ride down the driveway was it.”

Skateboarding helped him find an identity and a community, he said. Passing that on to others helps him feel inspired.

“It gives me hope about me losing my own vision,” Janz said.

“The more I skateboard as a visually impaired person, the more I feel like I have a future, and something to do — despite how much vision that I may or may not use.”

The ghost bowl

Just about every Saturday, the group meets at Shaw Millennium Park around 10 a.m. to skate in what is normally a sea of grey — Janz says they call it “the ghost bowl.”

“We can’t see when the ramps begin and when the end, so any change of angle of the riding surface is totally invisible to us,” he said.

But the club uses high-contrast tape to help Skate Bats like Zachary Medalla, 14, identify transitions in the pavement — where ramps start, when they end, and how skate boarders should adjust their weight.

“It’s fun, exhilarating, all that shenanigans,” Medalla said. “But just like related to vision loss, it’s scary — probably more scary than for most people.”

The Skate Bats staff and volunteers coach and cheer them through, while other kids at the park will ask about the tape.

It helps others understand visual impairment, Medalla said — and that inclusively is invaluable to the parents, too.

Skate Bat Zachary Abdalla, 14, says he has been skateboarding for two to three years. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

“I think that’s what everybody’s looking for in society right now, is to be inclusive all around,” Christine said.

“Why not think about skateboarding as one of those options?”

The whole world in front of them

For now, the Skate Bats club is small — six to eight kids, Janz said.

But Janz has plans for the future, and describes himself as a pretty big daydreamer.

“These kids have the whole world in front of them because of the way they’re being parented,” Janz said.

“It’s just so empowering, the way that they’re being given the opportunity by their parents to come out and do stuff like this.”

His hope is that, one day, Canada will consider creating a Paralympic skateboarding team that would give low-vision kids full-on careers in skateboarding.

“Just because they were given the chance to skate,” Janz said. 

“And they were given the chance to develop their skills and become a skateboarder.”

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