Experiencing gradual or sudden and permanent sight loss can be both debilitating and deeply distressing, such that vision impairment is often spoken about in terms of loss, disability, and sensory deprivation.
Yet accounts shared by people who were born blind and those living with long-term sight loss also describe rich multi-sensory worlds. As noted by the late Professor John Hull, ‘blindness’ can be a world creating condition, opening the body and mind to new ways of experiencing and making sense of spaces and places.
Many of these wider sensory experiences are currently overlooked in our understanding of how and why people engage with natural environments. Existing research suggests that spending time in nature can benefit people’s wellbeing, but these studies often use methods that rely on photographs, videos and virtual simulations. In doing so, they risk overlooking the non-visual cues in nature that people respond to, such as ‘thinking through the feet’, ‘sight-seeing by ear’ or ‘gazing with the hands’.
Recognising the importance of the wider senses is a vital step if we are to fully appreciate how nature-based experiences can influence our sense of wellbeing, be it positively or negatively.
“Sight paints a picture of life, but sound, touch, taste and smell are actually life itself." Tom Sullivan, visually impaired Singer and Author
Our approach to this study involves thinking about people’s so-called ‘emotional geographies’ – an area of research which aims to understand more about the complex relationships between senses, emotions, people and places.
By listening to people’s stories of time spent in nature, and the ways these experiences have changed through the twists and turns of their lives, we hope to gain new perspectives on how and why people’s feelings are linked to the environments around them.
When we talk about 'nature' and ‘natural environments’, we’re casting a very wide net. We’ll be getting to grips with a broad range of spaces, including back gardens, local parks, woodlands, countryside and coastlines. We’ll be speaking to individuals born with a visual impairment, as well as those experiencing sight loss later in life.
Ultimately, we hope the findings of this study will allow us to recommend measures that can promote positive experiences in nature, ensuring a more inclusive approach to landscape design and accessibility.
We want to move beyond efforts that simply improve access, going further to promote and support the right to adventure, pleasurable immersion and meaningful connection.