Tom Kershaw and David Lombardi spent a recent Saturday throwing punches at each other and flinging one another to the ground. No one inside the brightly lit but chilly room in West Islip tried to stop them, because they were being schooled in how to do the same thing.
Sally Braman was nearby, giving instructions on how to put a bad guy on his back. That day's class consisted of eight students working in pairs, practicing ninpo ninjutsu, a discipline taught for self-defense.
All of the students -- and the instructor roving the room -- are blind.
Welcome to Third Eye Insight, a program of martial arts, yoga and meditation for the blind and visually impaired at the L.I. Ninjutsu Center in West Islip. Participants gain fitness and self-esteem as well as knowledge of self-defense, and take part in activities that include skiing, surfing and fishing -- even archery.
The program, which will celebrate its fifth anniversary in May, is offered at no charge.
"I didn't want anybody to say they can't get healthy because of finances," said program founder Devin Fernandez, who is also blind.
Weekly classes are held in space donated by L.I. Ninjutsu Center, and its martial arts, yoga and meditation teachers are volunteers. Third Eye Insight spends its annual budget of just under $10,000 on accounting, bookkeeping, insurance and utilities at the dojo, or training facility.
Fernandez, who lives in West Islip, had been training avidly at L.I. Ninjutsu since 2000. But by 2009, he was forced to stop driving, and his training regimen fell off. Over the coming winter, Fernandez said, he decided to serve others by sharing his martial arts knowledge. "This, I can teach," he said.
'A warrior never quits'
Fernandez, 58, is a Bronx native and former electrician. In 1987, he was working at a BOCES building in Hempstead when an electrical panel exploded. He spent two weeks in a drug-induced coma and endured skin grafts on his face and hands after the accident. He recovered and returned to work, but by the late 1990s he had begun to develop retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that leads to blindness.
Retinitis pigmentosa is usually inherited, but doctors concluded that Fernandez's case stemmed from his accident. He recalled that one gave him a grim prognosis, telling him: "This isn't going to be a battle, it's going to be a war, and you're going to lose."
As Fernandez began losing his sight, he practiced walking in Manhattan with his eyes closed. When his vision began to fade, he turned to the state Commission for the Blind, which provided him training in walking with a cane, navigating subways and railroads and using computer software designed for people who cannot see.
"My brother was managing the changes very well and wasn't looking for more support, but we would gently offer," said Fernandez's sister, Kim Fernandez, a food industry consultant in Los Angeles and executive director of Third Eye Insight. "He was encouraged to remember, as a black belt: You're a ninja, and a warrior never quits."
The siblings came to believe the blind and visually impaired needed health and fitness facilities of their own. While other martial arts schools teach the blind within classes of sighted people, only one in the area -- World Seido Karate in Manhattan -- has a program dedicated to people who couldn't see.
Third Eye Insight was launched in May 2010. Braman, 45, a private-school kindergarten teacher from Baldwin, has a form of macular degeneration called Stargardt's disease. She has been a student since the first class.
"I used to be really active," she said. "I was diagnosed when I was 35. I decided I could either be miserable or I could take on challenges. I never thought that martial arts would be my thing, but I'm hooked."
Lombardi, 37, of West Babylon, is a clinical therapist at Hands Across Long Island -- a mental health care service in Central Islip -- who has been blind since 2004 as a result of complications related to diabetes. He agreed that martial arts training is good for his overall well-being.
"Part of being a therapist is that we have to take care of ourselves," he said.
Despite being able to see little more than shadows, Fernandez moved easily about the studio at L.I. Ninjutsu as the four pairs of students coached each other and worked on their movements.
Because all were visually impaired to varying degrees, the more advanced students carefully explained each movement to their partners.
"The verbal description has to be exact," Fernandez said.
The partners extended their arms and touched fists to establish their distance from each other. The attacker would call out "hit" as he or she made a slow punching movement. The defender would block the blow, then apply a sequence of maneuvers, sometimes with a punch of his or her own and usually ending with the attacker tripped or thrown over the defender's shoulder.
Fernandez said he is not aware of any Third Eye Insight student having to fend off an attacker in real life. He acknowledged there is little a blind person could do about a punch they can't see coming, but said if an attacker were to grab them, their training could make all the difference.
As important as self-defense may be, students cited exercise, self-esteem and the chance to socialize as the things they enjoy most about martial arts training.
"I feel it's built up my self-confidence," said Anne Mauro, 45, of Mount Sinai, who has been blind since birth.
Kershaw, 58, of Wantagh, injured both eyes in an accident in 1987 and has gone through 26 surgical procedures. Now retired from careers as an engineer and stockbroker, he said he missed being physically active as his sight decreased.
"I used to get up at 5 in the morning to Rollerblade on the boardwalk at Jones Beach," Kershaw said. After losing his sight, "I was stuck in the house," he said.
"I do [martial arts] for social reasons and physical fitness," he added.
In February, Kershaw made the TV news when he went skiing -- for the first time -- at Pico Mountain in Vermont as part of a Third Eye Insight field trip with the group Vermont Adaptive. That's not unusual for Third Eye Insight students, who regularly take part in outdoor activities.
"I never surfed when I was sighted, but I surf now," Fernandez said.
Working last July with Camp Abilities, a four-day sleep-away camp for children with impaired vision at Adelphi University in Garden City, and the Skudin Surf school in Long Beach, Third Eye Insight students rode the waves on specially designed boards with trained teachers.
And then there's archery, about which even Third Eye Insight staff and students' parents can't resist joking. "We have trouble finding people to hold the apple," Fernandez said with a laugh.
The classes are held in a studio at the dojo. After feeling the target to gauge its height and distance, students took bow and arrow in hand -- coached by a sighted instructor for up, down, left or right -- and let fly. The instructor lets them know the results. Students even tried their hands at shuriken, the ninja "throwing stars" familiar to martial-arts movie fans.
Devin and Kim Fernandez, 54, as well as their sister Roxanne Fernandez, a program coordinator at Stony Brook University who serves as Third Eye Insight's marketing director, aspire to a facility of their own.
"Right now, our next step is to get our own facility, so we can offer things beside the martial arts -- weight training, strength training, a track people can come to in the winter with their dog," Devin Fernandez said. "We'd love to have a pool for water aerobics."
And that's not all. The Fernandez siblings would like to see the Third Eye Insight model repeated around the country.
"Our long-term vision is to have our own facility and franchise the model so the blind and visually impaired -- in Chicago, in Miami, anywhere -- can have a fitness center," Kim Fernandez said, comparing the concept to the women-only Curves or Lucille Roberts fitness centers. Regular commercial gyms are not set up for the blind, she added.
"We'll be the prototype," her brother said.
Get in touch
Third Eye Insight
P.O. Box 415
West Islip, NY 11795