Authored by Sarah Bell
One of the aims of the Sensing Nature project is to understand how groups in other parts of the world are enabling interactions with nature.
As part of this, I recently spent some time with representatives from the New Zealand Blind Foundation; the primary organisation providing services to blind and low vision individuals in a country renowned for its rich and varied natural environments.
The Foundation provides practical, emotional and peer support, and has a dedicated ‘Community Volunteers and Recreation’ team. This team works with visually impaired individuals to help them access diverse nature-based activities, both within their local communities and further afield.
These range from regular nature walks - where different groups cater for varying preferences in terms of speed and distance - to gardening groups, sailing, tramping, tandem cycling, skiing, and playing cricket and bowls.
During my time with the Foundation, I was lucky enough to attend a water-skiing day organised in response to a suggestion by one of their members. The instructors initially used a ‘sea horse’ attached to a ‘boom’ - a long pole that hangs over the side of the boat. Using this equipment, new skiers were introduced to some of the physical sensations of water-skiing, building confidence whilst skiing alongside the boat within a supportive environment. Through the day, members described a shift from apprehension to exhilaration as they learned to adjust their body and ‘glide’ through the water:
“The first go I had, I was sitting on the sea horse thingy and it was fun but it was all a bit overwhelming because the wind and the water were spraying in my face… you feel this really weird funny feeling in your stomach, like on a rollercoaster or something… but then with a little bit of adjustment of my body position and stuff, there was less water spraying in my face so I got the hang of it and it was really, really good… just like gliding across the water!”
During the day, members chatted about their experiences of other Foundation activities, particularly noting the sense of achievement and valued peer support gained during longer outdoor challenges, such as the Seven Day Challenge, summer and winter Youth Camps, and an annual Insight Outward Bound trip. Reflecting on the latter, one member commented:
“I was in denial and didn’t really want to be involved with anything that had the word ‘blind’ in it. Then eventually the trip for Outward Bound came up and it was something I’d always wanted to do when I was in my 20s, and it was heavily subsidised and so I went… It was certainly going out of the comfort zone - they had me jumping off cliff faces into the water! … It was great, they were so supportive in that environment … I think, you lose confidence in a lot of areas and you get used to not being able to do things… whereas after you do lots of different things at Outward Bound, you think, ‘Well actually I can do that, I just might have to do it differently’ or adapt it slightly, so it was a really terrific, terrific thing to do and great for the fitness too!”
Another member explained that she’d always loved pushing herself out of her comfort zone; something she attributes to her parents’ approach to risk and independence when she was growing up.
“I love doing that, maybe because I was taught to as a youngster. I remember going camping and we were all in tents, except that my parents somehow managed to get a cabin, and mum would take us to the toilet and then she’d be gone when I came out and - I didn’t know at the time but she was probably watching me - and I think it was her way of letting me figure out how I was going to find my way back to the cabin, so I could do it the rest of the camp, you know?”
To some extent, the Blind Foundation’s approach to nature-based recreation seems to reflect this ethos; offering a supportive environment in which members feel able to push their boundaries, learning new skills and strategies for negotiating risk, and engaging in informal peer support in the process.
In this way, the Foundation supports members in building and re-building sufficient confidence to engage with nature in the context of their everyday lives, be it with the Blind Foundation, or independently in their local communities.