Sister Helen - Blind, Deaf and a Blackbelt in Karate
14 April 2014 General Interest
At 70 years of age, and with a black belt in Seido Karate, Sr Helen Merrin OP says she loves the adventure and challenge that martial arts gives her. But for a person who is blind, has deep hearing loss and has to be alert at all times to navigate daily life, it is Karate’s ability to still the mind and focus which attracts her most.
Sr Helen is a religious sister in the Dominican Order. She works as the chaplain at St Lucy’s School for children with disability at Wahroonga in Sydney’s north, a school where she had previously taught, before she lost her sight and then, some years later, her hearing.
She started doing Karate about 15 years ago and it remains an important part of her life.
“Nora and Miklos Farago started up a class for blind people and I heard about it when I was working at Vision Australia,” she says.
“I wanted some healthy, safe exercise, so I decided to start off and I’ve had my black belt now for almost two years.
“There is a small group of us who are blind, within a sighted class as well. I go for four hours a week.”
Sr Helen hastens to add that she’s no Karate whiz-kid. “I do it very much at a 70-year-old level,” she smiles.
“But it’s very good for me in terms of just having to still my mind and focus on what I’m doing. And it’s really difficult to do that any other time, because when you are blind you have to be alert all the time.
Sr Helen is hoping that a recent cochlear implant will assist her hearing in Karate classes, once her brain begins to better process the new sounds she is hearing.
“At the moment everything sounds like computer-speak to me,” she says. “So at Karate, I’m struggling with it because I need to use an FM system which puts the instructor’s voice into my hearing aid, rather than coping with all the shouting that’s going on around the class, and the cochlear is not working well for that.
“But the instructors are so patient and good with us. They work with such humour, sensitivity and incredible patience with us, as there is the need to explain exactly what we need to do, and also in some cases, repeat many times the same set of movements.”
She says the benefits of Karate have been substantial.
“Well my balance is better than it would have been,” she says. “And it is just safe, healthy exercise. It’s an adventure and a challenge too. In particular, it’s a challenge for the memory and retaining everything.
“When I went for my black belt we had to write an essay about what karate means to us. And one of the things I put in it was that quote from TS Eliot: ‘It’s a still point in a turning world’. And that’s what it is. I go there and I can just focus on that, and that’s all.”
Sr Helen has no plans to ‘retire’ from Karate, saying it is a great activity for people of all ages.
“Our style of Karate (Seido) encourages people from a very young age to people of my age to still do it,” she says. “You don’t have to be a 20-year-old.
“I don’t go in the competitions anymore though. We have sparring, but fortunately, I have prayer nights on Thursday night when sparring is on.”