Longtime ice skating coach and former professional skater Bruce Porter Jr. believes disabilities like blindness or autism should not keep someone from enjoying themselves in the rink.
Porter, of Alexandria, has been teaching children with autism for more than a decade and began working with the blind five years ago. He recently introduced his expertise to Leesburg’s Ion International Training Center, where he hosts an adaptive skating and hockey lesson every Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“Both have had very good successes,” Porter told the Times-Mirror regarding his program’s work with both intellectually and visually disabled attendees.
Having spent many years working with the NOVA Cool Cats — a Sterling-based nonprofit through which people with special needs can learn to play and compete in hockey — he talked with longtime friend and Ion owner Luiz Taifas about introducing a similar program to the world-class venue in Leesburg.
Porter received a grant from the Veterans Association and held his first lesson Oct. 18. He said the first portion of each lesson comprises a skating lesson for participants with autism, after which blind attendees are invited onto the ice to play a game of hockey.
“Most of them are able to see a little bit, and the ones who are totally visually impaired usually play goalie,” he explained. “They’re very conscious of people with disabilities, obviously — they’re living with one — so it has worked fairly well.”
A good number of blind participants are military veterans, many of whom are impaired due to an injury sustained in the line of duty, and some of whom have also suffered brain damage during their service. As a result, these skaters often require individual attention that is, in Porter’s words, “a little bit more hands-on.”
“We do need more people on-hand for the visually impaired — a lot of times, especially in the beginning, it’s almost one-on-one,” he said. He added, however, the turnout of visually disabled participants is rather low relative to the number of children with autism who participate, and is thus quite manageable, at least for now.
For skaters with intellectual disabilities, Porter said the constant movement involved in ice-based athletics helps to harness their attention and focus, which, given the nature of autism and similar disabilities, can prove challenging in more inert environments.
Though many of the visually impaired participants can see at least a little bit, Porter and his crew use a larger puck made of galvanized steel called a “blind puck,” which makes noise as it slides around the rink. Helpers will often physically map out these players’ movements to teach them proper technique.
“You need to get down on your knees and say, ‘I’m going to grab your foot and I’m going to turn it this way, and this is what you need to do,’” Porter offered as an example.
As a member of a large family — including his late aunt, who suffered mild intellectual disabilities — Porter has a sizeable soft spot for both children and people with special needs. His line of work may have, in his words, “been put in front of” him, but it’s a profession he finds enormously rewarding.
“It’s not easy to work with people with disabilities. It’s hard, and it’s much more nice and flashy to work with people for whom everything is wonderful. But there’s something about it that is very special,” he said. “I do it, and to have the rink that supports it is amazing. We’re just going to keep building it and keep helping people.”