Summer Fun is for Everyone: The Importance of Physical and Outdoor Activity for People who are Blind and Visually Impaired

As the weather gets warmer and summer vacation starts, many people engage more in physical and outdoor activities. However, often people with different types of disabilities face barriers to these activities. People who are blind or visually impaired (BVI) spend more time engaged in sedentary activities such as computer work or traveling (e.g. car or bus) than sighted people (Burton and Lee, 2007; Starkoff et al, 2016). Lack of access to transportation, inaccessible signage, and dependence on others directly and indirectly restrict people who are BVI from engaging in outdoor and physical activities. Furthermore, many recreation or facility staff are not trained in how to verbalize and assist someone who is BVI with these activities. These barriers force people who are BVI to rely on their family or friends to help them explore these activities because they need people to guide them and verbally describe how to use specific equipment safely or navigate outdoor spaces.

However, some friends and family place additional barriers on people who are BVI from accessing these activities. An example from my experience is a few years ago, I heard a number of my friends were registered for a rock-climbing course and they shared with me how fun and challenging it was. I never tried rock climbing before, so I was interested to try it. When I asked them to go with me to the gym to rock climb, they told me “It’s really hard,” “you can not do it,” and “you need a coach.” During this time, I was also very stressed because I was doing a lot of schoolwork and not getting much physical activity.

There are many physical to mental consequences of sedentary behavior.

Physical Health
A lack physical activity and involvement in more sedentary behavior can lead to numerous physical problems for the individuals. Some of these include back problems diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer-risk, and low physical fitness (Smith et al., 2019; Starkoff et al., 2016). These physical problems are exacerbated by sedentary behavior, lead to lower quality of life, and increase the disadvantages experienced by people who are BVI.

Mental Health
Lack of physical and outdoor activity can lead to a reduction in mental health (Biddle, 2016). For people who are BVI, this can also increase feelings of loneliness because (1) they lack accurate information and experience about outdoor activities thus preventing them from engaging in conversation and (2) they are spending time indoors mostly at home, so they don’t have opportunities to socialize or meet new people. Through repeated experiences of isolation and lack of information, people who are BVI can internalize feelings of being unwanted, awkward, and inadequate. These feelings over time can contribute to mental health problems and become significant enough for a diagnosis such as depression or social anxiety disorder.

Last year, I was sharing with my friend that I was stressed and anxious and she surprised me with a ticket to go rock climbing. She described for me the gym (the shapes of the rocks, the heights of the walls) and helped me get my harness on. On my first climb she helped me out and then we climbed together. After I tried it, it wasn’t hard to do and did not require a lot of vision. Similar to my experience, many people who are BVI get discouraged by family or friends from exploring outdoor and physical activities. Instead of encouraging the individual who is BVI to engage in physical activities, they invite them to do sedentary activities like cooking, eating, talking, watching a movie, or even, when they go outside, they immediately look for a place to sit.

Image Description: Two men running down a road side by side while holding either end of a black strap. The man on the left wears a yellow safety vest that says “blind runner” and the man on the right wears a yellow safety vest that says “guide runner.” They both are wearing race bibs, white shirts, and black shorts. They are both smiling.

People who are BVI want to enjoy their summertime by participating in and exploring leisure activities. If you are a friend or family of someone who is BVI, encourage them to join you in doing leisure activities. When you are engaging in activities, have them try things out and guide them how to do it. Avoid making assumptions about what they can and cannot do. Let them make that decision for themselves. You might be surprised that they have a creative way to do the activity without sight. By following these simple tips you are helping them to be more active and social engaged.

Please like and share this article and, in the comments, share your favorite ways to get active and outside in the summertime.

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