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Playdium: Blind Bowling League Wants to Expand

March 23, 2014

by Amal Tlaige

The blind bowling league at Playdium Bowling Center in Pine Hills meets every Thursday for an evening of fun.The center has been operating since 1940 and attract people of all ages and is especially hoping to expand their blind bowling league. Neil Luther, who bought the Playdium in 1983, offers old fashion service in an up-to-date environment and remains the only public bowling center in the city.

The blind bowling league began at Albany Bowling Center when it was located on Watervliet Avenue Extension, but that closed in 1999. Luther, who was previously employed at Albany Bowling Center working at the concession, knew many of the blind players there. Immediately after Albany Bowling Center closed, the league contacted Luther and he was more than happy to relocate them to the Playdium.

“I think it’s great. It’s great exercise for them, it teaches them how to … be more independent,” The league members are  all affiliated with the Albany Association of the Blind. The league meets from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays and consists of six blind players and two sighted players. The usually occupy four lanes.

Daniel Pallis up to bowl

Daniel Pallis up to bowl

Joseph Laramie, 66, is the team’s secretary statistician and has been bowling with the group since 1993.

“I wanted to do something that was recreational, and a person with limited vision can do. And bowling is something that we can do,” he said.

Laramie was born totally blind, but underwent operations to gain back little vision and now has 5% of what is considered normal vision; he can see very little in his right eye and almost nothing out of his left.

Laramie explained the different types of blindness a person can have. To be considered legally blind an individual’s vision in both eyes must be under 20/200 which is 10% of the vision of a person with 20/20 vision. Laramie’s vision is 20/400 so he has 5% of normal vision. Some people who are legally blind also have what is known as “tunnel vision” or field constraint. This form of blindness blocks out an individual’s side vision, as if the person is looking through a straight, narrow tunnel.

The Playdium league was not the first league Laramie joined. He bowled in the past and was excited when he heard about Playdium’s Blind Bowling Team. “We found out they had a blind bowling league here and that worked perfectly,” he said. Joseph’s wife, Charlotte Laramie, who is completely blind, refused to join a team if the members were all fully slighted because she needs the rails to guide her.

The guide rails are metal rails, a few feet high on the side of the bowling alley that are used to help the bowlers find the beginning of the bowling lane safely. Charlotte Laramie relies heavily on the rails to get oriented on the lane.

“I go up to the rail… to the end of the second section… I can feel the little cracks between the rails. Once I get up there I line myself up… what feels comfortable to me. Then I make about a half step back and do a three step approach. On the third step I let the ball go,” she said. Laramie used to be able to see somewhat out of her eyes, but lost what vision was left due to a cataract. “It’s very frustrating… I used to recognize color… and I’ve lost that.” While some people can get laser eye treatment to correct this, Charlotte’s eye did not grow fully, making it impossible for doctors to operate on.

Joseph Laramie putting away the guide rails

Joseph Laramie putting away the guide rails

Many sighted players don’t like to play with the guide rails up. “A lot of people who are sighted get a little uncomfortable with the rails… they feel like they’re being constricted,” said Joseph Laramie.

Laramie uses the rails at the beginning of his play, sticking out his hand to touch it and get a feel for where he is. “I basically try to get myself oriented so I’m lined up with my shoulders pointing down the alley and then I try to put the ball in the middle,” he said.

This is different than the approach sighted bowlers may attempt while playing; they may look at the spots in the lane trying to hit a certain mark. This league however, does have two sighted bowlers who volunteer weekly and take part in the game. The sighted players tell the blind players the number of the pins they did not knock down. The bowling pins have numbers assigned to them which makes it easier for members to play. When they go up for a second try, they know where to roll the ball because they can refer to the numbers of the pins they did not hit.

Every bowler has their own techniques to get a strike. “A long time ago I was taught that if it’s a seven pin you’re supposed to start from the right … or if it’s the 10 you’re supposed to start from the far left and angle it to the right,” said William Murray, 61, the team’s President. Murray is legally blind. He can see pretty well out of his right eye, but almost nothing out of his left. Murray is more interested in the fun of the game, not his scores.

Over the years, Laramie scores have fluctuated. “The best year I ever had was a 123 average. Now I’m about a 110…. and I’m getting older” he laughed. “That’s what I tell myself.” Laramie wears a distance spotting telescope which helps him see some distance. He also wore them at his old job where he worked as a vocational rehabilitation counselor. Often times his job involved walking the streets of Albany, Troy and Schenectady. The spectacles helped him see street signs and house numbers as well as bus numbers. “I don’t need to get on the wrong bus, right?” he joked.

The league belongs to a national organization known as The American Blind Bowling League Association. They also belong to the regional association that is an affiliate of the national association called Upstate New York Blind Bowlers. These leagues are active in Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo and Binghamton.

“Everybody’s friendly, it’s a good atmosphere, good people, good location. It’s fun,” said Chris Horan, 34, an attorney with the State Department of Environmental Conservations who is completely blind. Horan has been part of the league for six years. He entered the bowling alley a few minutes later than everyone else, his black guide dog, Timmy, leading the way. Horan said transportation is one of the biggest issues he faces as someone who is blind. He had to take a taxi to get to Playdium, which ended up running late. Joseph Laramie also finds having to rely on other people for transportation somewhat frustrating.

“I like the idea of being independent, do things when I want to, and go places when I want to on my own,” he said. Many of the players take buses or taxis to get them from point A to point B. “We’re kind of held hostage in a sense by paratransit or taxis or lined buses. You can jump into a car and go grocery shopping but for us… it’s a whole process,” said Laramie.

Another difficulty Horan stressed on was the inability to socialize with others due to his blindness, and not knowing where certain people are in large group settings, but Horan enjoys the game and is learning every day.
Other bowlers have taught Horan certain hand positions to use when bowling, and how to use the guide rail to the best of his advantage. “I follow the rail with my left hand and use the pendulum motion to keep the ball in a straight line,” said Horan.

The sighted bowlers are always there to help the blind players by telling them the numbers of the pins that are up, giving them tips to improve their technique and also help by putting the player’s information into the scoring computers.

“It’s amazing what these people can do without a sense that we take advantage of on a daily basis. It definitely makes one appreciate their sight without a doubt,” said Chris Syrett, 31, a sighted bowler who has been in the league eight years.

Syrett originally joined because his close friend, who was legally blind, played on the team and asked him to join. While his friend is no longer on the league, Syrett decided to stay because the league did not have many reliable sighted bowlers.

“They can be stubborn when trying to learn something new, they like to figure out things on their own. You kind of just have to let them figure out what works best for them,” he said.

However, most of the bowlers have been in the league before Syrett joined, that is all but Chris Horan. “Chris definitely has come a long way from when he started from barely breaking 30 pins a game to now averaging 60 pins now. And he’s done it mostly on his own,” said Syrett.

Louis Ambrosio, another sighted bowler also joined the league because a friend of his was a blind bowler. “It’s been great. Me and my friend are trying to get more people to bowl in the league.”

Luther and the league members speak to different organizations to let them know that a blind bowling league in Albany does exist. The team as a whole is trying to raise awareness about the league and is enthusiastic about new members joining.

“They’re trying to get the younger people who are blind, or are going blind to learn how to do this, to be more independent, also it’s an education for them really,” said Luther.

Once in a while Joseph Laramie will bring a group of blind people in, he sets the rails up and teaches them how to bowl.
Charlotte, Joseph and other members on the team attend two tournaments a year. One tournament is The Upstate Line Bowling Tournament in Erie Pennsylvania which takes place in April, and the National Tournament in Nashville, Tennessee over Memorial Day weekend.

“We’ve gone to many of them and met people over the years and keep in touch. It’s like a reunion,” said Charlotte Laramie. The blind bowling league does not have to place in order to go to nationals either. “It’s for anybody who is sanctioned in the American Blind Bowling Association or Upstate Blind Bowlers,” said Charlotte Laramie.

From left: Daniel Pallis, William Murray, Jean D’Amico, Charlotte Laramie, Joseph Laramie, Chris Horan. Behind: Sighted bowlers- Chris Syrett and Louis Ambrosio

From left: Daniel Pallis, William Murray, Jean D’Amico, Charlotte Laramie, Joseph Laramie, Chris Horan.
Behind: Sighted bowlers- Chris Syrett and Louis Ambrosio

The league has gotten very comfortable with their teammates and the staff at Playdium.

“We’re very close. I mean they’re older people, but you get to know them…. they met my daughter when she was born. They came to her baby shower it was nice,” said Deonna Hempstead, 21, a cook and waitress who has worked at Playdium since she was 14 years old. “If I don’t come in on a Thursday they don’t want anybody else to cook for them,” she said.

Hempstead has seen Playdium go through its highs and lows. At this time of year it’s still busy, but in the summer it slows down, because there are more outdoor activities, but the blind bowling league never fails to show up every Thursday night.

“It’s actually awesome. Just to see them walk around here, find their way fine…come in order what they want. They don’t even see the menu, but they already know what they want. It’s great,” said Hempstead.

Even with all the leagues that play at Playdium: the men’s team, women’s team, co-ed team, business is tougher every year because there are more things for people to do which takes away from bowling. “With all the other venues it takes its affect on us…the mall, the concerts at the Times Union center, it’s all a competition,” said Luther.

The owner wants to see more people who are blind take part in the league. “I would like to see them get some younger people and get the league to grow a little bit. Get more stable.” The other bowlers love seeing the blind bowling league play. “They think it’s just amazing. People didn’t even think that they would be able to bowl… well they can do just about anything that anybody else can do” said Luther.-30-

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