Interview with Yves : Fencing helped me to go with the flow of disability.

Hello, my name is Yves. I live in Grenoble, without an occupation. I do sport, in particular one that I used to practice as a top athlete. 

Q : Can you introduce yourself in a few sentences ? Who are you ?

A : Hello, my name is Yves. I live in Grenoble, without an occupation. I do sport, in particular one that I used to practice as a top athlete.

Q : What has your life been like so far ?

A : It has been quite chaotic, punctuated by the question of disability acceptance : being unable to see at night, facing difficulties for some activities, being unable to hang out with friends when I was a teenager… In fact, I distanced myself from the others and that’s how I started doing sport.

Concerning my school career, I decided to orient towards an apprenticeship in plumbing, heating, and bathrooms. I got an occupation until 2009, and then I was in total disablement.

Q : So what’s your disability ? How do you live the transition towards disability ?

A : I’m suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, the first symptoms of which appeared at 10 and expressed itself in the fact of being unable to see at night. Then, when I was 14, I lost some visual field, which became stable until 25. Later, I got a serious visual loss, so that my visual field is now tubular.

Now, a cataract has come on top of that, so I have got a blurred vision. Glasses are just a protection against ultraviolet rays thanks to therapeutic lenses made of three tints : one light, one dark and another even darker.

Regarding the transition from one step to another because of the progressive aspect of my pathology, I experienced it very badly. Each time, you have to relearn everything, and as I’ve never been to a center or school for visually-impaired people, I always readapted my senses to my way of doing. And it has not always been the right way…

I adapted my house and the moments I went out I used the white stick which, put together with the visual field that I still had, made my routes much more pleasant. Near a street or a traffic light, I was still able to distinguish whether it was green or red.

I didn’t contact any associations, but my ophthalmologist told me about the Aramav, a functional rehabilitation center based in Nîmes. There, we learn about mobility, occupational therapy, sense of touch, but also to improve the sense of hearing. 

I stayed there for 4 months in 2016, a duration decided according to my visual state at the time, and the organization of my life that I had already developed… I had to learn not to put force on my vision to prevent myself from spoiling the visual field, from using the computer with the white screen, and so on. An adaptation I didn’t know before and that I didn’t accept initially, so my learning was really slow. I refused it and I buried myself into sport, so much that I worked out 3 times as much as I do today. Sport was a real refuge for me. Even today, when I feel bad, I do sports for 2 or 3 hours and I feel better. Particularly these days, since I’m stressed because of a deterioration of my vision on my right eye.

Today, I use the white stick, I don’t read braille but I use speech synthesis while lighting up the text as well to continue stimulating my visual field. I should say that the white stick is more often stuffed in my bag than in my hand.

Q : You were really sporty, what was your relation with sport ?

A : I did weight lifting. I took refuge in it, trying to overcome my limits. I went in for a high level competition and I practiced all 4 days or so, whereas today it can be from Monday to Sunday since I really need to evacuate my stress. I need to feel as if I were out of my body. That’s what we call endorphins. Once I get these endorphins, that’s it, it’s not me anymore.

Back then, I practiced with a coach. But now, I’ll go to the gym in my spare-time with my own knowledge. It’s been around 32 years that I’ve been practicing, so now I know what to do and how to do it. And then I discovered fencing.

Q : How did you discover fencing ? Where do you practice ? How did you find a fencing master ?

A : When I was at the rehabilitation center, I didn’t want to be there. The first weeks I didn’t like it. I was constantly in the world of disabilities, mixing with people suffering from all the low-vision illnesses. I was extremely ill-at-ease.

But then, they suggested that I do fencing. I didn’t know what it was. So I discovered fencing as a visually-impaired person. You should know that before, I didn’t have confidence in anybody, I didn’t want anybody to guide me, to hold my hand. However, fencing helped me to go with the flow. The fencing master’s voice suited me. Because I did sports to a high level, I enjoyed when he gave me instructions or when he pressed me to improve myself.

During these courses, I learnt to be in total darkness under a blindfold exactly as all those who practice that sport. Owing to this fencing master, I made a lot of progress while I didn’t really improve on anything during the first 4 weeks at the rehabilitation center. I had banned everything that was related to adapting one’s house, including the adapted material… But having enough confidence to let myself be guided while being blindfolded was a big step. I thought there was something to explore in that direction.


Q : What does doing fencing as a visually-impaired person mean ? Is it possible to do everything ? What must be adapted ?

A : Fencing is about putting on guard, positioning. Heightened carpets indicate where the middle is to help centering as the field measures 14 meters. On one side, a landmark helps to position yourself whether you are right-handed or left-handed. So you know that you are at the right place to start. Then you move forward taking short strides and using the steps and movements learnt. Moreover, you learn how to use all your limbs, which you usually don’t do when initiating as a sighted person. When you can see, you only rely on sight. But in my case, I understood that I can appeal to my whole body, from my feet on the carpet to the multiple sensations I get. Actually you have to work in space.

It allowed me to enter the second month in the center with an open mind. I realized that they were there to help me, that it was possible. In addition to fencing, I familiarized myself with mosaics to practice occupational therapy. I learnt to utilize my central vision by attempting to recreate the picture on the board in front of me.

Thus, fencing made the 3 next months at the center more beneficial for my learning and also in regard to my relation with the disability.


Q : Do you practice in Grenoble ? Is it needed for a fencing master to get training to teach to visually-impaired people or is it accessible for everybody ? 

A : I’m still practicing in Grenoble but as able-bodied people do. Practicing as an able-bodied person or as a visually-impaired person is not the same. For instance, the guard is different. When you are blind and you fence, you are positioned to a certain distance from your opponent that you become used to. The body is in a specific alignment, one foot placed forward towards the opponent, the other one towards the wall. And then you move forward this way thanks to short steps, slowly waving the foil, saber or sword left and right, to touch the opponent’s weapon. Once you have touched it, your senses take over to determine their next positions. Since you take forward and backward steps, hearing helps to spot the opponent as well because of sounds made by feet on the carpet, especially at the beginning when you have a heavy tread. Afterwards, you manage to be more subtle !

That’s exactly the same to determine the location of the opponent with a touch of the foil. If the foil is directed towards my right-hand side, my opponent is logically on the left, etc. Once you touch it with the weapon, you continue with a step forward to try to prick them, and so on. It’s all about parries, lunges, figures that you should know yourself to understand how the opponent is positioned through mental representation. The fencing master who initiated me used to work with people in wheelchairs, and then in 2015 or 2016 he became interested in visually-impaired people. I felt comfortable with him. I’m not at all comfortable with able-bodied practice. I miss hits, I have difficulties determining other people’s positions… If they want to score points against me, that’s completely possible.

I’m practicing at a club in Grenoble. I went back to Nîmes to do courses before, but not anymore. It’s too far ! However, it was a complicated to find a club that accepts visually-impaired people.

I struggled with a lack of understanding. They told me that I was seriously handicapped while I had come to meet them without any problem. But I was answered that it would be too difficult, impossible. The point is that it’s not a question of materials as adapting the field costs nothing. What was so difficult to them was the training. According to them, to be partially-sighted is a too serious handicap to be able to go in for competition.

They finally accepted that I attend the club after the first session when they saw I had skills. There, people I met were rather open to my coming, nevertheless it is me who had to adapt myself to them and not the opposite.

Concerning the other clubs, they weren’t as open-minded. Just with the sound of people’s voices that I spoke with on the phone, I understood that it wouldn’t be easy. Furthermore Disability Sports don’t propose fencing and I was not interested in practicing something else.

When I’m doing body building I go to a weight room. I became a member of one of them but I test a lot of weight rooms. I learn to find my way in the room being accompanied by the staff who shows me how the material is arranged.

My current practice consists of body building from Monday to Friday or so, and fencing twice a week. Some days I do both. It’s still so liberating.


Q : Why did you accept to be interviewed ? What’s the message you want to spread ?

A : When I was in Nîmes, my fencing master noticed that I had skills, that’s why he called Grenoble’s clubs to offer training to other fencing masters. He even offered to move directly to the clubs to spread the practice of adapted fencing. He was sent packing !

You should know that some able-bodied competitors decided to use a blindfold so they found out that they had better sensations this way, so good that they could have the sense of their arms to the point of their foils or swords due to the alignment of the whole body.

The reason why I accepted to share my experience is that sport and especially fencing allowed me to make a big step with regard to my disability. Minds must be more open and people have to change, they have to understand that we are all the same even with our differences.

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