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Blind retiree receives black belt in karate

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Laurelton resident Sandra Randall is almost your average, 60-year-old retiree except she has attained the rank of black belt in karate.

Randall, who suffers from congenital cataracts and has been legally blind since childhood, competes in fast-paced karate matches.

Although she is blind, she has a new best friend to see her through life. But more about that later.

"It is a big challenge for me," she said. "Each time I learn new techniques I always try to be perfect."

Randall trains with 15 others from the five boroughs and New Jersey at the Associated Blind's fitness center in Manhattan. Seven years ago she was taking a computer class at the Associated Blind's West Side campus, when someone approached her about a karate class that was being started for people with impaired vision.

Randall responded that she was completely visually impaired and could not participate. But eventually she was persuaded.

Seven years later she passed a series of grueling exams and received her black belt from the Seido organization, a worldwide martial arts teaching institution.

"Martial arts helps you with your weight and your balance," she said. "It helps with self-esteem and confidence."

She said martial arts have changed her life by making her feel less vulnerable. Randall hopes the interest in martial arts grows in people battling all kinds of disabilities.

"Blind people are often constricted," she said. "Karate is a chance and a space to be free."

Since students cannot see the instructor and mimic his movements, they must feel the instructor's movements and try to copy them. She said that while the learning process is more complicated without being able to see, it can be just as rewarding.

But a recent change in her life kept her away from karate for the better part of a month.

After navigating her Laurelton neighborhood and the subway system with Arle, her seeing-eye dog for 10 years, she decided it was time to find a new guide dog and let Arle retire.

Randall first trained with Arle in 1989 at the Guide Dog for the Blind School in San Rafael, Calif. During the winter of that year she completely lost her sight.

In January she returned to San Rafael where she trained with a new seeing-eye dog and gave Arle to the ranch in California where she had spent the first year of her life.

Since training with a guide dog requires nearly a month of outdoor exercises in all kinds of weather, Randall chose the California-based school again because the winter weather is a little warmer on the West Coast.

Randall got a new black Labrador retriever, Patrice, which had previously been paired with an older man in a partnership that did not work out. But Randall said she and Patrice are doing fine.

Randall said a guide dog's energy level and personality have to be similar to those of their master's.

"They have a lot of down time," she said, pointing out that some dogs dislike lying around for long periods.

Patrice did get a little impatient waiting for Randall when she returned to karate class. But Patrice more than made up for it by guiding Randall through what she called "the dreaded 59th Street subway stop" at Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.

"There is very little space between the support beams and the subway tracks," she said.

The adjustment has not been easy since Arle knew every inch of Laurelton and Patrice is still learning the ropes.

"Dogs know once the harness is on they are working and have to behave," Randall said. "When the harness comes off, they can just relax and be a dog."

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