Ashley Shepherd never thought she’d be able to play tennis because of her disability.
The 23-year-old Howick resident has low vision and right hemiplegia, which means the right side of her body is partially paralysed.
“My mum plays tennis and my sister, she does netball, and I grew up around people who played sport,” Shepherd said.
“It was challenging at the beginning because I felt a bit left out, like I can’t do these same things.”
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But for the past few weeks she’s been taking lessons at Ngatira Tennis in Mount Eden, Auckland, which has launched New Zealand’s first tennis program for people who are blind or have low vision.
“I just try to hit it to people, sometimes I go a bit crazy and hit it all over the court. Whether it’s someone dropping the ball, or me hitting it myself. My serve is really good, it’s just the coming back that’s challenging .
“Being able to actually play a sport, that I’ve seen my mum especially playing a lot, is a big deal. It was amazing to actually play it and have a few rallies with people.”
Kohimarama resident and Ngatira Tennis member Kelli Strong, 31, coaches the group of blind and low-vision players every Sunday morning.
The lessons consist of a set of drills that are tailored to people who are blind or have low vision.
“If we’re on the service box line, and they’re on the backline, then we might roll the ball to them while they’ve got a racquet, and get them to stop the ball,” Strong said.
“It just gets them in the practice of awareness of where the ball is coming at them.”
Strong uses tennis balls that vary in size and colors to make them easier to see. She will try to verbalise the drills as much as possible.
“When I say, go for a jog, it’s basically like we’ll have a starting point, and we’ll say, ‘OK, we’re gonna jog 20 steps forward’,” she said.
“So we might say, ‘take another five steps to your left … if we need them to move.”
The group is growing larger every week and after each session they get together for lunch.
Ngatira Tennis president Greg Lim said the club wanted to open up for groups that might find it hard to engage with tennis.
“Our club is quite unique in that we focus on the community. Any spare money we get, we try to fund programs for marginalized communities,” he said.
“If you imagine going into a tennis club, it’s a pretty conservative place, and it’s not necessarily representative of society.”
Lim said the club is also interested in starting up a program for autistic children.
Tennis New Zealand added a vision and hearing impairment section to its coaching training program in 2019. There are 68 coaches that have had this training across the country.
“We would like to encourage our clubs to be a little bit more diverse with who they reach too,” Tennis New Zealand club development manager Ali Telford said.
“We can start thinking about reaching out to people that we might not have traditionally seen as tennis players, that’s encouraging inclusiveness and diversity by bringing this into our coaching.”
Tennis New Zealand is co-ordinating with Jellicoe Park Tennis Club to set up a program for blind and low-vision players in Manurewa, south Auckland.
Telford said she hopes this will “urge” other clubs to think in the same direction.
Shepherd has documented her tennis progress on her YouTube channel. She wants other sporting groups to learn from Ngatira Tennis’ inclusive stance.
“Disabled people are more than just their disability, they are interested in lots of things, and I think that being able to play a sport as someone with a disability is a big deal,” she said.
“I think that for people wanting to play a sport who are disabled, definitely go for it.”