How do people living with sight impairment experience nature during their lives?
Sensing Nature was a two-year research project aiming to answer this question. It listened to participants with varying forms and severities of sight loss to understand how they encountered a sense of wellbeing (or otherwise) with different types of nature.
Roughly 285 million people are thought to live with sight impairment across the world—a number that is increasing as populations begin to age and conditions such as diabetes become more common.
The overall aim of Sensing Nature has been to improve the way we understand and enable more positive, inclusive multisensory nature experiences amongst people living with sight impairment, regardless of their life stage.
Throughout, we have emphasised the need to progress from thinking about people’s nature experiences solely in terms of disability (i.e. risking constrained, segregated ‘accessible’ experiences) to understanding people as individuals with diverse nature interests and knowledge who may or may not also have impairments of some kind. This is the first stage in catalysing a broader culture shift towards the promotion of inclusive nature experiences that fully engage with and respect embodied diversity rather than reproducing identity-limiting stereotypes and misperceptions.
Conducted by Dr Sarah Bell at the University of Exeter, the study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and ran from November 2016 to November 2018.
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A series of detailed interviews lay at the heart of this qualitative study.
By listening to people’s stories, we were able to gather information about their diverse interactions with nature and learn from their experiences.
In the initial phase of the research, lead researcher, Sarah Bell, volunteered with a range of activity groups across England, including those involving participants with visual impairment. Sarah used this opportunity to build an awareness of people’s diverse sensory worlds and to explore how people might like to share their experiences and stories.
In the project's second phase, Sarah conducted a number of detailed interviews with people of different ages and backgrounds, and with varying forms of visual impairment. These interviews offered a much deeper understanding of people’s diverse sensory experiences in nature, alongside the conditions that can both enhance and undermine these experiences.
Sensing Nature has contributed to the development of several important resources.
When we started this project back in November 2016, we had no idea that it would generate so much enthusiasm or momentum. It has been both encouraging and inspiring to recognise how much potential the findings have to change the way we understand, enable and promote more inclusive nature experiences.
Nature is experienced in diverse ways; from feeling the elements and encountering plants and animals near home, to venturing further afield to parks, woodlands, the coast, countryside and mountains. Recognising this, Sensing Nature has been collaborating with a range of stakeholders—national and international—to improve the way we understand, enable and promote more inclusive nature experiences amongst adults with sight impairments through a range of different activities and outputs.
Easing into Nature
The first is a resource for anyone whose lives have been touched or shaped by sight impairment in some way, including people with an eye condition, close friends or family, and anyone keen to facilitate more inclusive nature experiences. Through sharing the experiences of a range of people and signposting other useful resources, this booklet aims to highlight opportunities for engaging with nature in pleasurable and meaningful ways. It can be downloaded below as a pdf document or as a plain text word file, or you can listen to the audio files.
Inclusive design guidance
The second output, produced in collaboration with the Sensory Trust, is an inclusive design briefing featuring ten top tips for designing and managing community nature settings with sight impairment in mind. Whether your space is a park, garden, reserve or woodland, these tips aim to promote access with dignity and ensure more people feel welcome and supported to visit. This briefing can be downloaded here, either as a pdf document or a screen-reader compatible word document.
Walking group guidance
The third output, produced in collaboration with Walking for Health, British Blind Sport and Dr Karis Petty at the University of Sussex, is a set of guidelines designed to help walking groups cater for the varied needs and priorities of walkers with sight impairment. Recognising the importance of tailored support in both specialist and mainstream walking groups, the guidance provides tips for facilitating and sharing walking experiences in a meaningful way with sight impaired walkers, alongside opportunities for setting up new walks. This can be downloaded here, again either as a pdf document or a screen-reader compatible word document.
Supporting nature adventures
During the project, we came across several organisations, such as the Vision of Adventure, the Calvert Trust, Milton Mountaineers and Blind Veterans UK, who are providing valuable opportunities to experience a sense of adventure in nature. Whether it’s sailing, waterskiing, climbing, caving or other so-called ‘risky’ activities, these organisations support people to balance positive risk taking with genuine skills development to promote (otherwise somewhat elusive) opportunities for ‘wilder’ nature immersion and achievement. We drew on this expertise as part of a collaborative event in Bristol in September 2018. A podcast summarising the key conversations held during this event is available here.
The final output is audio description and visual awareness guidance for staff and volunteers keen to support multisensory visitor experiences at natural heritage settings. This was produced in collaboration with VocalEyes, the RSPB and Andy Shipley. Refined through a series of “Nature Narratives” training workshops at four case study sites around the country, this guidance aims to build capacity to welcome and support inclusive multisensory nature experiences amongst people with sight impairment, whilst also raising awareness of these types of settings as places for everyone.
If you would like hard copies of any of these outputs or would like to feedback on the content, please do get in touch via: Sarah.Bell@exeter.ac.uk.
Although the funded phase of the project is now complete, we are always keen to explore opportunities to build on and extend these collaborations and activities, so do please get in touch if this is of interest.
Can we foster more critical approaches to human health, wellbeing and nature?
We were recently asked to write a 500-word summary of the key knowledge contributions of the Sensing Nature project, and realised how challenging it is to narrow down two years of intensive work—and many hours of rich interview discussion—into such a small space!
However, having done so, we wanted to share an edited version here, in the hope that it might inspire more critical approaches to human health, wellbeing and nature in future research and practice.
(Health warning! These reflections are aimed at an academic audience, a more conversational discussion will be available shortly.)
If you would like to find out more about this study or to feedback on how you have used any of the outputs, we'd love to hear from you.
You can get in touch by emailing Sarah.Bell@exeter.ac.uk or filling out the form below.