The Braille Institute in Anaheim teaches blind students how to adjust to life in what they call the sighted world. Most often, that means classes in typing or navigation, but not always.
Thuy Tran tightens her black belt and waits for instructions. Twenty fellow blind students are lined up in formation to practice tae kwon do. With their white canes outstretched, they punch the air to ward off invisible predators.
Tran is the only black-belt student in the room. Her sighted teachers from Shambhala Martial Arts use touch and speech cues to guide students through a series of moves that are mostly reserved for self-defense.
It took five years for Tran to earn the belt. Now she glides around the room giving pointers to her fellow students.
"The reason why I’m actually really proud of my black belt is because he gave me no special treatment," Tran said. "I was required to do everything the other black belts had to do. He didn’t say, ‘Oh, you can’t see, so let’s give you a thinner board.’ Or he didn’t say, ‘You know you can’t see, so we’re not going to have you spar.’" Tran laughed.
Tran began losing her vision at age five when she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease that kills eye cells. Despite her decaying vision, Thuy attended regular high schools around Anaheim and went on to college.
She hoped to live a normal life, but a bout of extreme dizziness struck and her vision got worse.
"It was hard for me to even walk around my own house, let alone out on the streets, so I dropped out," Tran said. "And for maybe like four years I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, and I was at home a lot and trying to ask myself what I was going to do. Am I going to go back to college? Am I going to find a job? And that’s when, you know, my vision started getting worse and that’s when I decided, OK, it’s time to go to Braille."
The tae kwon do classes helped Tran gain confidence. She also learned the art of quiet mind, a martial arts technique that increased her awareness of her surroundings inside and outside of class.
"There has never been a point when I had to use my self-defense, but there has been times when people snuck up on me and I’d hit them," Tran said, laughing. "That was bad because one of the people that did that to me was my mom, and I turned around and hit her straight in the stomach and I was like, 'Mom, you’re not supposed to sneak up on me!'"
With a black belt around her waist, Thuy Tran hopes to get a full-time job and move out of her mom’s house. Next, she wants to try a different set of moves — and become a full-time dance instructor.