Nonsense, common sense, super-sense

Posted on March 4, 2014

What the experiences of the visually impaired can teach us all

Most of us would agree that it is nonsense to persist with a society that does not allow everyone to participate and enjoy equal access to opportunities.  As a visually impaired person, much of my career has been dedicated to working at a structural level with government and institutions to create the conditions that enable all of us, including the most historically excluded, to access and participate in the mainstream.

In April I found myself at the front of the room addressing the collective wisdom, talent and genius that was the 200+ delegates and speakers at the Do Lectures. I was simply continuing this narrative – one where the most excluded inspire themselves and society by succeeding at challenging activities. And it was here that I first connected with Do Lecture speaker Andy Middleton, founding Director of Pembrokeshire based coastal adventure organisation TYF

Common sense

Andy M and I both share the common sense view that enabling disabled people to challenge themselves can only raise their self belief and aspirations, and just as importantly, popular perceptions of their capabilities.  In June I began work with the TYF Adventure Guides to explore how we could make its core activities; surfing, kayaking, climbing and coasteering, more inclusive for people with sight loss. This involved much dangling, wiping out and chucking myself off cliffs. The purpose of this was to enable the guides to understand practical issues for visually impaired participants and how they can respond appropriately. But what proved to be more revealing was the experience of the guides themselves, attempting the same activities blindfolded.

As they became more relaxed about being unsighted and supporting each other, I noticed the guides sharing profound insights about themselves and how they were experiencing their surroundings and people around them.  Using non visual senses they were able to orientate themselves on the beach, notice surface textures invisible to the eye.  As they strengthened their use of non visual senses and built trust they grew in confidence and noticed more. We found ourselves able to time the waves and orientate to get the best surf, and ultimately had the confidence to sprint at full speed along the beach, blindfolded.  What I realised was that rather than just experiencing activities without sight, the guides were gaining knowledge and understanding about themselves, each other and their environment.

As Andy M and I reflected on this, what began to emerge was a new possibility.  Rather than a society where inclusion is about assimilating people, often forcing them to fit into conditions otherwise not designed to enable them to play to their strengths; we envisioned a total shift in emphasis.  In order to function effectively, people with sight loss (and indeed of other diverse backgrounds) have perspectives of the world acquired through an  array of sensory and other abilities that are just as valid, true and rich as those obtained through visual means. 

Through strengthening our awareness by getting to know our non visual senses and abilities, visually impaired people could act as guides for us all to exist more consciously in the world.

Super sense

Super Sense is the manifestation of that vision. November saw our first Super Sense workshops in the beautiful Wye Valley. 20 Environment Agency staff, TYF's Andy Middleton and Jon Heyloch and my sight impaired co-facilitator James Goldsworthy tested our assumptions and ambitions for the structure and content of a Super Sense workshop.

We blindfolded participants, and explored nature's diversity, built campfires, prepared lunch and walked solo across a wobbly bridge over the river Wye. Participants learned how to trust their own innate abilities to understand and operate in any environment. They learned how to support colleagues in challenging circumstances through good communication, and also how to take control for themselves by clearly expressing their own needs.

At the end of it all, Andy M said “The development of the Super Sense programme has been a breath-taking experience for us, as well as the people that we've introduced it to. For too long, we've treated too much of what is invisible as unimportant; working with our visually impaired colleagues has shown that appreciation of the unseen opens up both new experience of nature's magic and a new way of sensing the views, feelings and opinions of people that we've only seen through the easiest lens."

If you’d like chat to me to find out more or arrange a Super Sense experience for your workplace then get in touch.  To find out more take a look at the teaser film below. 

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Andy Shipley

Andy Shipley

Disability rights and access champion

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