Conception Bay South man creating 1st known squash program for people with vision loss

·5 min read
Eric Hart, head coach of the Canadian Inclusivity Squash Program in Conception Bay South, is developing a squash program for people with vision loss. (Andrea McGuire/CBC - image credit)
Eric Hart, head coach of the Canadian Inclusivity Squash Program in Conception Bay South, is developing a squash program for people with vision loss. (Andrea McGuire/CBC - image credit)
Andrea McGuire/CBC
Andrea McGuire/CBC

On a squash court in Conception Bay South, N.L., 18-year-old Zack Harris slams the ball without missing a beat.

Harris is partially sighted — and though no one would ever know, this is his first time playing squash.

"Any new opportunity is a good opportunity, whether it fails or goes well," said Harris.

As a person with partial vision, Harris said he's found squash "entertaining" so far.

"I like the challenge of that. And I like the challenge of new things," Harris explained.

Squash for people with vision loss isn't just new for Harris. Lolly Gillen, Squash Canada's international delegate to the World Squash Federation, said she doesn't know of any existing programs with that focus anywhere in the world.

Andrea McGuire/CBC
Andrea McGuire/CBC

But with head coach Eric Hart at the helm, the first program of its kind could get off the ground soon in Conception Bay South.

"We're hoping that if we can figure things out sufficiently well that we might be able to offer a program for people who are partially sighted, and we see this going all across Canada, hopefully eventually, and even crossing international borders," said Hart.

"That would be the big, big dream."

It might seem like a lofty goal. But Hart is dreaming big for a reason. Hart's first inclusive squash program for people with cognitive disabilities — co-founded with Gillen in 2019 — is also considered the first of its kind by the international squash community.

"Eric is doing some incredible cutting-edge work in the field of disability squash," wrote Jordan Jefferies, Professional Squash Association Foundation executive, in an email to CBC News. The foundation connects professional and community squash players all around the globe.

"To our knowledge, they [the Canadian Inclusivity Squash Program] are the only organization in the world whose sole purpose is to deliver squash to populations with mental, emotional or physical disabilities," wrote Jefferies.

Hart also has a wheelchair squash program in the works — and though these programs exist elsewhere, Squash Canada representatives said that in Canada, at least, Hart is a leader on that front, too.

A pairing of Harts and minds

So if anyone can lead a squash program for people with vision loss, it's Eric Hart. But for now, the program's still in an experimental phase. Provincial Canadian National Institute for the Blind manager Kim Hart has been meeting with Eric — no relation — regularly for brainstorming sessions.

"Eric initially reached out to us at CNIB to see if it's even possible to put together an accessible squash match," said Kim Hart.

Andrea McGuire/CBC
Andrea McGuire/CBC

When she looked it up online, she said, the results were discouraging at first. She read that squash for partially sighted people just isn't workable.

"And then when we got out here on the courts — well, you know what? It can be done," she said. "This is absolutely incredible.

"It's just a matter of looking at where the issues are and doing just a few little modifications."

Eric Hart and Kim Hart have determined that for this program, the squash ball should be slower, softer, and always brightly coloured. And format-wise, Eric Hart said they're considering multiple possibilities — the program could be limited to partially sighted players only, or it could be designed to include one partially sighted player and their sighted friend or family member.

"We'd train them side by side. And that type of model is a little safer than trying to put two people in there who are partially sighted," he said.

For now, the initiative is limited to people who have at least partial vision. But eventually, they'd love to make a beeping, sonic squash ball, which would open up the game to players who are legally blind, like CNIB program manager Kelly Picco.

"Because you have to see to use the ball, at least see partially, I'm not able to [play]," Picco said. "But if there was a sound developed in the ball, I definitely would participate."                                                   

'He's a visionary'

Squash Canada international delegate Lolly Gillen said Eric Hart is "absolutely relentless" in his drive to make the sport more accessible.

"He's a visionary, he's relentless, and he's trying to give everybody equal opportunity to go through that squash door and enjoy themselves," she said.

Andrea McGuire/CBC
Andrea McGuire/CBC

Hart credits his late mother for inspiring his passion.

"My mom was the head nurse in the case room at the Grace Hospital," Hart said, "and just before she stopped working, she took in 16 people with different disabilities into our home and took care of them for 10 years. So it has to make an impact on you."

Hart said it happened in the 1960s and early '70s, when he was a child growing up in Upper Gullies, and that the 16 people with disabilities were all children. Before the children moved in, he said, most had been staying at the Janeway children's hospital or Exon House, a former institution for disabled children in St. John's.

"It was quite, quite busy," Hart said.

"It meant I had to bring water from the river to help do the washing. But you know, we were given that opportunity. It was a real life experience I was given. It was a privilege, really," he said.

Along with that foundational life experience, Hart just loves squash.

"This is a great sport, it really is," he said.

"We're really just trying to say, here's a program — if you'd like to do something different, and you have one of these type abilities and just want to get some recreation, give squash a try."

Hart recently received a ParticipAction grant to start a squash camp for people with vision loss this summer. He also hopes to launch an ongoing program in Conception Bay South this fall.

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