A sporting chance

August 2002

“Everyone’s kicked a football at some point in their lives,” Nicky Malson says. “It’s something everyone can relate to.” It’s also something a lot of people take for granted, just like a trip to the swimming pool in summer or a jog in the park or a kickabout with friends.

But how would you play football if you couldn’t see the ball? Would you have the nerve to go running if you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face? These are all issues that Nicky deals with every day in his capacity as sports development officer for Wales Council for the Blind. Surprisingly, he doesn’t think lack of sight in itself is the biggest obstacle to participation in sport for visually-impaired people; it’s their attitude, and the attitude of those around them, that’s the real problem.

Nicky goes on to explode a few of the myths. For a start, not everybody registered blind is in total darkness. “Blind”, as Nicky puts it, “is just a medical definition” which covers a wide range of sight problems, but the definition itself often causes problems with perceptions of visually-impaired people and leads to the idea that they are all completely helpless. Only around four per cent of people registered blind have absolutely no vision at all, so often all it takes for a group of blind people to enjoy a game of, say, hockey, is something as simple as “a bigger, brighter ball”. Nicky himself is registered blind, and can’t, for example, read print, but that doesn’t stop him from taking part in a range of sporting activities that would put most fully-sighted people to shame.

It’s also a misconception that limited sight is the only physical problem that blind people have to deal with; on the contrary, recent Assembly research has shown that visually-impaired people are more likely to suffer from other problems like obesity and heart disease. Nicky believes that a lot of this is down to the fact that they don’t have the chance to take part in sport to anywhere near the extent that sighted people do, and he’s on a mission to provide them with that chance.

It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon, and we’re at Eastern Leisure Centre, Cardiff, watching one of Nicky’s training sessions for young people with sight problems. In the course of his work he deals with people of all ages, but explains that children are easier to encourage because “they’ve got no fear”. Kids of primary school age are vaulting, trampolining and generally having a whale of a time.

The key word for all his work as sports development officer is integration, so sighted brothers and sisters of blind children are welcome to come along, and usually do, because it’s fun. “Therre are usually nine or 10 visually impaired kids,” Nicky explains, “and the brothers and sisters bring it up to about seventeen.”

I assume that the little girl confidently following the instructor’s advice and twisting artfully in the air above the trampoline is one such fully-sighted sibling, but Nicky assures me that she is in fact blind. That’s the thing about sessions like this; it’s difficult to tell who can see and who can’t, and it doesn’t really seem to matter.

A lot of the work for Wales Council for the Blind, as Nicky tells me time and time again, is about changing attitudes. He spends a lot of time talking to people like PE teachers and managers of leisure centres, convincing them that it isn’t as difficult as they might think to include visually-impaired people, and that they often reap benefits that they wouldn’t have thought of themselves.

With leisure centre managers, it’s often a matter of simple economics. He tells me the story of how, with one gym manager, he compared the cost of training staff and painting stairs in a brighter colour (to make them easier to climb) with the income from just one month’s gym membership from the visually-impaired people who had already signed up. With the prospect of all that money, the gym manager was falling over himself in his keenness to make the necessary adjustments.

The point is that by making their facilities user-friendly for people with sight problems, people who run sports establishments are attracting a completely new market. Nicky also stresses that the improvements made for visually-impaired people often benefit everybody. After all, if you wear glasses and take them off to go to the gym, you might well find yourself squinting at the equipment and have trouble working out which buttons to press.

One aim at Wales Council for the Blind is to prevent a “them and us” mentality, which divides people into the two camps of blind and sighted; most of us are on a continuum. In the same way that simpler equipment makes life easier for most gym users, so the coaches that Nicky trains say that his input makes them better coaches all round, not just when coaching visually-impaired people.

I can’t be the only person who’s gone to an aerobics class and been completely lost, unable to copy what the instructor is doing; but those trained by Nicky are sure to verbalise every command and make the routine easy for everybody to follow, not just the Lycra-clad models of perfection at the front. Similarly, football coaches will take each player’s spatial awareness into account and become better strategists. It’s often a humbling experience for a sighted person, since the training involves being blindfolded. “Suddenly they’re unsure of themselves,” Nicky says.

Not far from the trampolining kids at Eastern Leisure Centre there’s some more serious training going on. Dan is a 14-year-old with no peripheral vision. He’s also being talked about as an Olympic possibility by the people who’ve seen him training, although teenage diffidence makes him seem a lot more doubtful about this himself. I watch him pick up a shot-put ball that I had been having trouble lifting, and fling it halfway across the mats. Apparently he used to be into weightlifting, but decided it wasn’t for him. Now it’s a question of working out what he wants to concentrate on, but in the meantime he’s just enjoying these sessions and taking part in PE at school.

Dave Penikett, one of the coaches at Eastern Leisure Centre, tells me how much he enjoys planning the training sessions for visually-impaired people. It’s a challenge, he says, making sure that contrasting colours tell visually-impaired people where everything is, and constantly being aware of where to position the equipment spatially. Dave designed the original 10-week plan for the training, and got so much positive feedback from the kids that the sessions here have now been going for more than six months. The activities aren’t confined to the centre: “We ask the kids what they want to do, and then we try to accommodate it.” When this included dry-slope skiing, they went ahead and organised it. There are also plans to do go-karting and indoor climbing.

Althoug he has encountered several young people with serious promise, producing athletes is not the point of Nicky’s job. It’s really just to give people with sight problems the same opportunities in sport and physical activity as the rest of us. That’s why he travels all over Wales, setting up sessions like this one, talking to people and changing their attitudes. It’s also why he recruited 70 visually-impaired people to carry out evaluations of leisure centres; so that the managers could hear from a blind person’s perspective just what they were doing wrong and how to put it right.

If you’re in any doubt that Nicky’s work has positive effects, perhaps it’s worth looking at the school report of one of the kids at today’s session. His teacher praises him as “more confident and outgoing” in general, but perhaps the most significant improvement is in PE: “This area has totally developed for him both in his confidence and his effort to be a team player – WELL DONE.”

Nicky’s not doing too badly himself, even having the nerve to go jogging during a phase in his life when he lost his sight completely. He just walked slowly around the field a few times, checking there were no obstacles in his way and building up his confidence until he was ready and just went for it. “For all I know, there was a big pothole I could’ve fallen down,” he adds cheerfully. The man’s nerve is dizzying – there can’t be many people with that kind of confidence – but I’m sure that by the time he’s finished his work he’ll leave us all seeing things very differently.