Absecon resident Christopher Cruz may be blind, but he hasn't let that handicap hold him back. He has played piano since he was 2, picked up the clarinet in elementary school and used to ride horses at the Atlantic Riding Center for Health in Egg Harbor Township.
But when Cruz's mother, Amy Livengood, sought out a karate studio to teach her son, it wasn't until about her ninth or 10th call that she found someone willing to listen - Cliff Kupper, who runs Atlantic City Wing Chun Kung Fu in Egg Harbor City.
"He was having some tough times, and we wanted to get him in something," Livengood said. "A lot of places didn't want to take him because he was blind, and (Kupper) was the first one who said, 'Come on in. I'll train him.'"
While most instructors scoffed at the idea of teaching martial arts to a blind student, Kupper, whose art teaches blindfold fighting and places a premium on using the sense of touch, was willing to give it a go.
Cruz, 15, has trained at the studio for a little more than two years, and has earned a gold sash, the wing chun's fifth rank. Despite being unable to see, he has mastered several techniques and forms, which are exercises made up of a series of moves.
Cruz admits he was initially wary of studying martial arts, but was shocked when he found himself capable of performing these complex physical feats.
"It was like a milestone," said Cruz, who has been blind since birth. "Imagine if you'd won the lottery. That's what it felt like to me. Like, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe I can do this.'"
In teaching Cruz new techniques or refining his existing ones, Kupper demonstrates moves just as he would to a sighted student. He then has Cruz feel the positions of his limbs and imitate them. Finally, he makes fine adjustments to Cruz's form by hand.
Accommodating Cruz's handicap makes teaching him time-consuming, but his discipline and work ethic make him a joy to work with, Kupper said.
"He's a great student," Kupper said. "(From) when I met him, he's so changed. He's really confident now."
Lamar Corbitt, a former Mr. New Jersey winner who studies alongside Cruz, said he has never worked with a blind student before. Seeing Cruz overcome his disability has been an inspiration, he said.
"To do it without seeing, it is really difficult," Lamar said. "His challenge is a whole lot harder than ours. He's an amazing individual."
When Cruz began taking karate, he was undisciplined and often talked back, both traits his study of martial arts has changed for the better, Livengood said.
In light of how good wing chun has been for her son, Livengood gives the studio a ringing endorsement.
"It's a positive influence for anybody that wants to get into it, whether you're sighted or not," she said. "It's good people here. It's like a family."
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