With growing awareness of the health and wellbeing benefits of time spent with nature, it is important to support inclusive access to nature in, around and beyond our communities.
Yet there is limited understanding of meaningful opportunities to do so amongst people living with sight impairment.
Where disability is considered in existing literature on the links between nature, health and wellbeing, it is typically in terms of barriers to access. Indeed, as highlighted by Sensing Nature participants, nature settings can present challenges and anxieties amongst people living with sight impairment; they are often expansive, difficult to navigate, and are inherently changeable due to weather, levels of daylight and seasonal cycles.
However, this is only part of the story. Stereotypes and widespread mis-perceptions of what it means to live with sight impairment play an important role in shaping these experiences too.
Through the Sensing Nature study, I realised how frustrating it must be to live in a sensory world that is constantly assumed to be a lesser version of the sighted world; even our language around blindness tends to imply a deficit of some kind - 'vision impairment', 'sight loss', 'poor visual acuity' – and many have highlighted the limitations of these terms. This language devalues the highly intricate multi-sensory knowledge that is required to sense and move through such a world without sight.
In writing this, I am not in any way trying to romanticise people’s experiences of sight impairment (for the want of better terminology), nor do I wish to underestimate or downplay the very real challenges of negotiating our sight-dominant world with little to no functional sight.
However, rather than continuing to prioritise the world of the sighted – a world that may indeed be temporary for many of us given that one in 12 people are predicted to be blind or partially sighted by the age of 60, and one in two by the age of 90 – Sensing Nature aimed to develop more inclusive ways of promoting and sharing experiences of nature.
We considered nature in its broadest terms; from plant pots in the home to feeling the elements outside, the plants, bird life and other creatures in the garden; or venturing further afield to parks, woodlands, the coast and countryside.
In so doing, the study sought to move beyond restrictive understandings of sight impairment that lodge disability firmly in the body, to engage with the disabling influence of oppressive social and physical environments that unnecessarily restrict life choices amongst people with impairment. This extends to the stories we share, culturally, about what nature is and how best to engage with it, and to the assumptions we rely on when designating diverse settings as ‘accessible’ or ‘walkable’.
Rather than reinforcing the constrictive sighted norms that often shape such understandings, the study recognised disability as an ordinary part of human existence, to be expected and respected on its own terms.
Here we explore three broad themes that emerged in the findings; nature as freedom, as ‘skillscape’, and connection.
Nature as freedom
Many participants described a sense of freedom through spending time in nature; freedoms we have characterised as social, mobile and exploratory.
Social freedoms include freedom from disabling social attitudes informed by narrow conceptions of sight impairment; freedom from disabling environments that often generate feelings of anxiety and tension; and freedom from overprotective social encounters that fail to see past impairment to recognise and respect people’s individual skills and abilities.
Mobile freedoms allow people to move (safely) and to choose how and when to engage with nature. Recognising the importance of these mobile freedoms highlights the limits to short ‘accessible’ sensory trails or gardens that fail to accommodate the joy of movement (the ‘kinesthetic’ sense) and often inadvertently reproduce segregated nature experiences.
Building on these mobile freedoms, the value of exploratory freedoms was also emphasised. Several participants cherished opportunities to cultivate the skills required to explore new terrains in nature, from nearby neighbourhood parks to coastlines, caves and mountaintops. Participant descriptions of these freedoms emphasised the richly textured ways in which people come to experience nature, not to ‘master’ it or ‘overcome’ impairment, but rather to ground oneself in the world, to know and feel a part of nature.
Nature as skillscape
Several participants discussed the skills and knowledge they had developed to engage with nature on their own terms, and emphasised the importance of being attentive with all the senses.
Importantly, and countering myths and stereotypes of compensatory ‘super sense’ development, this multisensory awareness did not ‘miraculously’ appear with sight loss. Rather, it was described as a quality that participants had to work at, developing new embodied dispositions and skills to find alternative ways of tuning into, navigating and deriving pleasure and meaning from different environments.
From likening the development of cane skills to driving lessons; to describing the intricacies of echo-location; the challenges of wayfinding in difficult weather conditions; and learning to identify different plants and animals by sound, touch and scent; participants’ stories highlighted the emergence of ‘skillscapes’—where skills were developed through repeated encounters with diverse forms of nature over time.
‘Skilling up’ happened at multiple scales of nature interaction. For example, those who had lost confidence in tackling the more uneven, changeable qualities of nature highlighted how even small-scale experiences, such as planting up a hanging basket can be invaluable; offering an opportunity to engage with the soil through the hands, finding new points of sensory reference for different plants, and gaining a sense of achievement by producing something that feels right regardless of its visual impression. Over time, they described building confidence to tackle alternative forms of nature, be it the back garden, a local park or satisfying curiosities further afield.
Notably, this skilling up was not restricted to participants. Many highlighted the importance of building the awareness and capacities of landscape designers and environmental managers, as well as people involved in running mainstream nature-based activities, such as outdoor adventure providers, walking groups, and nature conservation initiatives.
By identifying and working with shared multisensory reference points over time, activity coordinators could enhance the inclusivity of such activities, allowing more meaningful and long-term participation amongst people with sight impairment. This requires shifts in how people currently understand inclusive access to nature; progressing from thinking about people’s needs and priorities solely in terms of disability – with the risk of segregating experiences – to understanding people as individuals with diverse nature interests, knowledge and skills to contribute.
Nature as connection
According to the RNIB, 40% of people living with sight impairment in the UK report feeling cut off from the people and things around them. Sensing Nature participants highlighted several ways in which time spent with nature can provide valuable opportunities to forge meaningful relationships with the world, helping to counter feelings of isolation and experience a sense of connection and companionship.
Participants described the enlivening influence of nearby nature, be it feeling the sun’s warmth, or gaining a different sense of space, light and air movement. Many described the soothing sensations of a calm breeze and the undemanding companionship of trees and birds, finding comfort in these gentle interactions with nature rather than more complicated human encounters.
Participants also touched on valued opportunities to experience feelings of awe, wonder and perspective with nature, particularly through bird song and with the different qualities of air and sound that unfold in areas that are often otherwise valued for scenic views.
These experiences highlight alternative categories of aesthetic value in nature that move beyond the traditional emphasis on the visual. They invite all of us to explore and discover the diverse ways in which different nature settings and habitats express themselves through a multitude of senses.
Many of these findings are currently being put into practice in collaboration with VocalEyes, Andy Shipley (visually impaired facilitator and sensory explorer), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, the Woodland Trust, the Sensory Trust, Vision UK, Moorvision, British Blind Sport, and the Ramblers, amongst many other great organisations (visit ‘Outcomes’ page for more details).
Overall, Sensing Nature has and continues to advocate for more inclusive approaches to research and practice that appreciate the many different forms of embodied human experience, respecting and supporting multiple ways of sensing, being and moving with the world.