New Zealand’s first blind and low-vision tennis program a hit with community

New Zealand’s first blind and low-vision tennis program a hit with community


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.

Ashley Shepherd is excited to be able to play tennis for the first time in her life with the launch of New Zealand's first program for blind and low vision players.

Chris McKeen/Stuff

Ashley Shepherd is excited to be able to play tennis for the first time in her life with the launch of New Zealand’s first program for blind and low vision players.

“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 .

Ngatira Tennis in Mt Eden, Auckland is the first club to offer lessons for Kiwis who are either blind or have low vision.

Chris McKeen/Stuff

Ngatira Tennis in Mt Eden, Auckland is the first club to offer lessons for Kiwis who are either blind or have low vision.

“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.

Trainers verbalise commands and use a range of balls in different colors and sizes to open up the game for disabled players.

Chris McKeen/Stuff

Trainers verbalise commands and use a range of balls in different colors and sizes to open up the game for disabled players.

“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.

Shepherd says it is a “big deal” for her to be able to play a sport, after feeling left out of physical activities during her childhood.

Chris McKeen/Stuff

Shepherd says it is a “big deal” for her to be able to play a sport, after feeling left out of physical activities during her childhood.

“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 says he started the program because he wants the tennis community to be more representative of society.

Chris McKeen/Stuff

Ngatira Tennis president Greg Lim says he started the program because he wants the tennis community to be more representative of society.

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.”

Tennis New Zealand says it is encouraging clubs to be more diverse, and is in the process of setting up a second program for blind and low-vision players in south Auckland.

Chris McKeen/Stuff

Tennis New Zealand says it is encouraging clubs to be more diverse, and is in the process of setting up a second program for blind and low-vision players in south Auckland.

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.

Shepherd encourages other people with disabilities to get into sport, and says clubs should strive to be more inclusive.

Chris McKeen/Stuff

Shepherd encourages other people with disabilities to get into sport, and says clubs should strive to be more inclusive.

“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.”

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