On a sunny June Saturday at Long Island’s East Beach, blind surfers-in-training climbed astride their boards with a sighted instructor looking on. The surfers—some tentative, some daring—paddled their way through the breakers and balanced on the unwieldy boards. Feeling, smelling, listening, and tasting the salty playground, they anticipated and met each wave.
A few hours later, the last surfboard was surrendered and Devin Fernandez, founder of Third Eye Insight (TEI) – Fitness for the Blind and event host, deemed the day a success. Another triumphant Fitness Field Trip under his belt.
Days like these keep Fernandez inspired as he navigates a sighted world and develops his now five-year-old nonprofit organization, created with a simple mission—to offer free fitness opportunities for the blind and visually impaired. “It’s a bittersweet experience. I love being part of my new community and creating this organization but I also hate it because I have lost my sight,” he admits. “TEI has helped move me forward.”
Weekly martial arts, yoga, and meditation classes at the Ninjutsu Center in West Islip, New York, are the centerpiece of the TEI program. TEI members spar with partners, practice asana, and sit in meditation, following the verbal cues and hands-on instruction of Fernandez and other teachers.
The path to the first Third Eye Insight class started in 2000 when Fernandez was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that results in blindness. He wrestled with the implications, alternating between despair and hope. “It is okay to feel sorry for yourself, as long as you don’t dwell on it. There comes a time when you have to pick yourself up and move forward,” he says. “There is a saying in the world of competition: Get knocked down nine times and get up 10.”
A decades-long practitioner of the martial arts, he has a keen sense of how an active lifestyle is vital for both physical and mental health. Navigating his way through social services for the blind, he discovered a lack of physical activities that engaged his new community. “I was looking for a place to practice and to feel comfortable with the loss of my sight,” he explained. “Nobody was offering it in Long Island.”
He called on his sister, Kim Fernandez, who lent her business expertise to the joint venture. Together they researched the market and discovered there were no programs offering what they envisioned—fitness for mind, body, and spirit. “We jumped in with both feet,” she says.
He approached his instructor, Shihan Allie Alberigo, who invited him to host the classes at his dojo. Referring to a 70 percent unemployment rate among the blind and visually impaired community, Fernandez insisted that the classes be free of charge. Shihan Alberigo generously agreed, and in May 2010 Third Eye Insight – Fitness for the Blind was launched as a not-for-profit organization.
Five years later, Third Eye Insight is a vibrant organization that manages to stay true to its mission of providing free fitness classes to its members. Class sizes have blossomed from one or two people in the early months to a dozen or more committed students working out on their mats every Saturday. Monthly Fitness Field Trips get participants out on surfboards, bicycles, kayaks, and horses. Fernandez is called upon to teach and speak to a variety of community organizations, camps, and schools. And TEI has built a network of social service organizations, including the YMCA and Lions Club, that support TEI by promoting their mission to the community or providing in-kind donations of space, volunteers, and other resources.
Now Fernandez has bigger plans. He has long wanted TEI to have its own home—a state-of-the-art facility replete with pool, track, fitness equipment, and an array of exercise and meditation classes. His vision doesn’t end there. He foresees a community center in every sense of the word, a place for the visually impaired to exercise, socialize, and take classes—everything from computer literacy courses to saxophone lessons.
And the vision continues to expand. Fernandez wants to replicate the Third Eye Insight program in cities across the country, to open up doors—literally and figuratively—to the visually impaired, so they, like their sighted peers, can gain entrance to a life of health and vitality.
Give Fitness Its Due
Third Eye Insight has built its organization around improving the health of the visually impaired community. Yet, as cofounder Kim Fernandez relates, there’s a disconnect in the larger community over the role of fitness in preventive health—especially for the blind.
Blind persons don’t simply go on a three-mile walk or a jog around the park. They need a navigation system or a sighted partner. Using sighted gyms or studios is equally challenging, due to transportation, cost, and lack of specialized instruction. This barrier to physical fitness has a direct effect on the health of the blind community, which suffers disproportionately from high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
For Third Eye Insight, this disconnect is another barrier they will patiently dismantle using the tools at hand: a martial artist’s kick, a downward dog, a surfboard, or a bicycle.