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‘Buddies’ give blind students a feel for DU hockey

To understand hockey from Robin Ennis’ point of view, try closing your eyes at a game. Slap shots sound like gunshots; checks on the boards seem like cars crashing; shouts at the referee are raw and intimidating.

You can guess where the puck is, but not if it’s being passed or shot or which players are involved. Even crowd noise is confusing. Are those cheers from DU fans or the opponent’s? Is the roiling rise in excitement because of a penalty, fistfight or goal?

Shots-on-goal statistics and penalty times are on the scoreboard and therefore unavailable. Intermission entertainment is a complete mystery. The Zamboni sounds like a passing tugboat.

And skates on the ice seem like knives being sharpened.

Little wonder that Ennis, a human communication and sociology major who is 90 percent blind, wasn’t eager to attend a DU game. Her reluctance changed when a new student government program called Crimson Companions got her into games against Michigan Tech on Nov. 17 and North Dakota on Feb. 24.

“It was really exciting,” Ennis gushes. “They would come down into the end where we were and then all of sudden smack into the glass. I was like ‘Whoaaaah!’ It was really cool.”

Ennis’ Crimson Companions were AUSA Senate President Aaron Schwarzberg in November and Executive Board member Alyssa Hampton in February. The two students co-founded the athletics “buddy system” as a way of sharing sports with students such as Ennis.

“When you come to the University of Denver, you latch onto hockey,” says Hampton, a junior. “It’s that taste of big, rich athletic tradition.

“I can’t imagine a student not attending a hockey game within their four-year academic career.”

Neither could the AUSA Senate, which is working to extend Crimson Companions to every student who needs it. The first recipient was Ennis, 23, who lost her vision unexpectedly following a medical procedure.

Ennis, a senior, will begin working toward a master’s degree in social work at DU after graduating in June. She’s been at DU for four years and had experienced much of what the University offers, but not hockey.

“I just pay attention to the skates and players hitting the puck and descriptions (from a companion),” she says of her first experience. “There are lots of sounds in hockey that provide clues as to what’s going on.”

Unless, of course, those clues are drowned out by chants about the referee’s ancestry, insults at the visiting team or shouts for a DU player to “stab ’em with a skate.”

Ennis says she loved the color even when it was off-color.

“My mom would describe to me what was going on in the game, who was making goals,” Ennis says about the November game. Hampton supplied the commentary in February.

According to Michele McCandless, associate director of the University’s Disability Services Program, of the 700 DU students getting some kind of academic accommodation due to disability, two are blind and nine have various other visual impairments. The issues for each student are different, so assistance varies.

“When I first came to DU there was another visually impaired girl in class and she had a really negative experience,” Ennis says. “But mine was the complete opposite. I’ve had a really great experience at DU.”

McCandless says the principle the disability services program tries to encourage is “universal design” — the idea that if a system, building or device is good for the disabled, it’s usually good for everyone else, too. Which is why there is Braille on elevators, ramps at street crossings and close-in parking spaces for the disabled — all to make the process of getting around as good as it can get.

Now there’s Crimson Companions as well.

“It’s to share the passion for sports,” says Hampton, a varsity volleyball player. “Crimson Companions is extending that hand and opening that door.”

This article originally appeared in The Source, April 2007.

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