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Walking and Cycling Grants London blog

Nov,2018 Middlesex Association for the Blind
Cycling with sight loss

This blog was written by Martin Greaves, Middlesex Association for the Blind

Middlesex Association for the Blind actively supports people with a visual impairment to continue to live independent lives. However, the nature of visual impairment is very much one where the ability to participate in everyday activities is limited by the nature of the disability, and opportunities to participate in active leisure activities are few and far between.

One such activity that is out of bounds to many people is the opportunity to cycle. With the inherent dangers of taking a bike on the road, those with visual impairments require support from a sighted guide. Opportunities exist for people to ride tandems with a sighted guide, but these require some degree of experience and confidence, given the basic instability of the tandem and the effect of the sight loss on orientation and awareness of the local environment.

One of the impacts of sight loss is that other senses tend to compensate for the loss of vision, so for example, much more importance is placed on sound to determine what is happening in the immediate environment. Hence the lorry that sounds loud coming up on the shoulder of a sighted cyclist can sound terrifying to someone cycling with sight loss.

In order to provide visually impaired people with the opportunity to participate in an active leisure activity within a safe environment, Middlesex Association for the Blind took the decision to purchase a Van Raam two-seater, side-by-side tricycle a couple of years ago. Not specifically designed for visually impaired cyclists; nevertheless the tricycle design encourages the possibility, with one rider controlling steering and braking with fixed handle bars for the other rider.

Both riders are able to pedal independently of one another. Thus the tricycle is able to take a sighted guide seated alongside a visually-impaired rider. The design provides a stable platform for mounting and dismounting the trike and the side-by-side seating allows a large degree of social interaction, which adds to the sense of riding, the sighted guide being able to explain what is happening around them.

An initial club set up in Ealing indicated that there was a demand for such an activity, but sadly this stopped running in 2016 when a member of staff left the organisation. In the meantime, we purchased a further two trikes to provide similar schemes across the Middlesex Region (North London through to South West London). In restarting the Ealing Club we tapped into the local cycling campaign.

Ealing Cycling Campaign proved to be incredibly supportive and we managed to find a pool of volunteers that not only would provide sighted guides, but even offered to store our trike (not a small matter)! The group meets once per month at Walpole Park, and has grown from an initial three visually impaired members in March to ten members by late summer.

With the growth in numbers, trying to give everyone sufficient time on the trike has become increasingly difficult to achieve within the allotted time, and next year may require increasing the frequency or duration of meetings to accommodate our members.

Following on from the Ealing Club, a second club commenced monthly meetings at Marble Hill Park in Twickenham. Again tapping in to the local cycling campaign we were fortunate to find two volunteers to provide cycling support. In fact our cycling volunteers give us so much more than just providing sighted guides. Their participation and interaction with members has been crucial to making our members feel welcomed and providing the overall sense of enjoyment that comes when cycling the trikes. This group has also started to grow and thanks to events such as trips to Kew Gardens, more-and-more people are finding out about and joining our clubs. In 2019 we plan to get the third trike in operation in Barnet and provide further opportunities for active leisure activities for those with sight loss.

We are indebted to Cycling Grants London / Groundwork London who have supported us in this venture, and to Transport for London who have put in place the funds to support the setting up of such activities. Without their help our trikes would probably still be languishing in old garages and driveways.