‘I love it forever; it was so fun.’ Blind kids get boat ride as part of maritime program

Standing on the deck of “The Riviera,” a restored 1964 charter boat, Hunter Calderon Diaz ran his fingers over a woodcut map of Puget Sound, tracing the heights and depths of the waterway.

“I love it forever; it was so fun,” the boy said, enthusiastically remembering the hours-long boat ride he had taken.

On Wednesday, six blind or visually impaired children between the ages of 11 and 14 spent four hours on a boat in Puget Sound.

Part of an experimental pilot program to make science education at Tacoma’s Thea Foss Waterway more accessible to children with visual impairments, the boat trip had taken over a year of planning.

While several programs on land exist to help children with visual impairments learn about marine science, actually taking kids out on water is very rare, said Kaddee Lawrence, director of Audience Engagement and Science Education at the waterway.

“I don’t believe anybody else is doing things like this,” Lawrence said.

To organize the trip, the waterway partnered with Services for the Blind, which runs a summer skills camp every year where they introduce children with visual impairments to different types of career opportunities.

“This is super exciting because we’ve never worked with visually impaired students on the water before,” Lawrence said. “ It’s not very common that visually impaired students get the opportunity to do these sorts of things on the water, just because of the fear of accidents.”

The six kids spent four hours on the boat. Lawrence and others from the waterway brought different sea animals on board, letting the kids touch and hold intertidal invertebrates, like sea urchins.

“We made bracelets and looked at tiny animals and plants,” Levi Dailey said excitedly as he disembarked from the boat in the afternoon.

The kids also did a navigation activity, using a talking compass to determine which direction the boat was going and to locate different landmarks in the Sound.

“A lot of people, when you say you’re going to do navigation on a boat with visually impaired students, they look at you like you’re crazy,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence said she worked with Services for the Blind to modify activities she uses in her science education for students with visual impairments.

One activity, a color-coded game of Jenga, Lawrence adapted for kids with visual impairments by using puff paint to draw different symbols onto the side of the blocks. That way, the kids could identify the different types of blocks from their feel instead of their color.

She said she was surprised by how simple it was to adapt many of her activities for students with visual impairments.

“I think the biggest take-home from this is that visually impaired students have the capability of doing far more than they are frequently given credit for,” she said.

Expanding accessibility can be a challenge for some places, but it’s a challenge that’s worth it, said Jen Scheel, youth service specialist at Services for the Blind.

“When we educate them, they find that it’s really not hard to make things inclusive,” Scheel said. “It just takes a little bit of creativity and talking to those who know about the blind community or are in the blind community themselves.”

The organizers hope this will become a regular program at the waterway.

“The hope on both sides is that this will become a regular part of the summer programs for Services for the Blind and perhaps a school-year program as well,” Lawrence said.

The kids seem to agree.

When asked if they wanted to go sailing again, three chorused, “Yes!”