Running, Cycling, Rowing, Hiking – All Can Be Enjoyed By Blind Or Partially Sighted People

Mar 31 2015 0 Comments March 2015

Tandem cycling for the blind

Image credit: Flickr user Jiri Cech


Visually impaired or blind cyclists are enjoying cycling in many parts of the world through riding stoker on a tandem.  Stokers sit at the back of the bike and they greatly increase the speed of the tandem and are considered the power behind the throne.  The captain is the sighted guy at the front who is responsible for the steering, gears and brakes.  Until the stoker and the captain get used to each other’s riding styles, the captain will give a running commentary on the scenery, bends, holes in the road and the general lay of the land.  As they get to know each other, the stoker will be able to anticipate when the captain is about to lean or tuck or stand up on the pedals. There are many clubs which not only have regular day rides but also hold multi day rallies for tandems.  Many of these events raise money for various charities for the blind and partially sighted and they are also used to raise awareness. Remember to wear a reflective vest or reflective belt wherever you cycle.


Karissa Whitsell was born in 1981 and was diagnosed with degenerative macular dystrophy at the age of nine.  She always loved riding a bike and as her sight deteriorated so she decided to give tandem riding a try. Karissa was only nineteen when she went to the 2000 Paralympics, the first of three visits to the games.  Karissa has ridden with several captains but one of her favourites is Lisa Turnbull.  It takes a while to get to know each other’s riding style, so it is really beneficial to stay together as a team.  Karissa Whitsell is still racing and enjoying promoting tandem riding for the partially sighted and the blind.

tandem cycling blind

Image credit: Flickr user Gustavo Fernandez


Like most people learning a new skill, the students start with the basics and this usually begins with practising on a rowing machine, followed by going into a rowing tank and learning to master a sweep oar.  Rowing is a sport in which visually impaired and blind athletes can compete on an equal footing with sighted athletes. Adaptive rowing became an official sport in the Beijing 2008 Paralympics and includes people with different mental, physical and sensory challenges. Sue Buckley who is president and founder of Club VIBES (Visually Impaired/Blind Enhanced Services) in Knoxville, USA has been investigating different physical activities which visually impaired people can enjoy.  She has this to say about rowing, “Eyesight is not necessarily an asset, so that was one of the things that we wanted to try.  We understand that during parts of training the rowing crew actually shut their eyes. ORRA (Oak Ridge Rowing Association) chairman, Terry Holly said, “We use our sense of hearing primarily, the sense that you listen to the water, you listen to the oars as they turn, you listen to the slide which is the seat moving back and forth so that your other senses focus on how to row and all the technical aspects of it.”  Rowing gives the participant an excellent low impact body workout and participants have commented on how it has helped lower their blood pressure, helped them to lose a few pounds and they feel generally fitter.  The social aspect of rowing and meeting like minded souls,  is also a great boost to confidence and morale.


In 1993, Victoria Nolan was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, she was only 18 years old.  Victoria married and had two children but by then she only had three per cent vision left.  Determined not to give in to her disability she decided to take up a sport and tried rowing.  Victoria fell in love with it and quickly turned her hobby into her passion.  In 2007 Victoria joined the Canadian National Adaptive Rowing Team and in 2008 competed in the Beijing Olympics. Victoria has travelled the world, winning many medals along the way and retired in 2012.  She is a special education teacher and holds a Masters Degree in education and a degree in special cognitive science.  When not teaching, Victoria is sought after as a motivational speaker, where her guide dog, Nolan, is usually the centre of attention.

Blind Runner


Road running is a great way for the visually impaired and blind to either continue a lifelong passion or start a new one.  The usual way to run is with a road guide.  Running with a tether is a good way to boost communication, with the runner and the guide taking hold of each end.  The guide will run slightly ahead and to the side of the runner and so the runner will be able to sense turns and the guide can give a sharp pull if there is danger ahead.  The length of the tether varies depending on the road conditions and how far apart the two need to run.  The site suggests tying a loop at each end big enough to put your hand through but says “I just loop my fingers through the loop rather than sliding the look around my wrist.  This is because some guides are clumsy and why should I hit the dirt because I trip up. LOL.” It is important that the guide is a stronger runner than the visually impaired runner as he will need to give a verbal commentary as well as run.  It is suggested that the guide gives notice of curbs, inclines etc at least three steps before they happen.  If there is a narrow gap the visually impaired runner prefers to run behind rather than ahead.  The Blind Runner site also says “random statements, such as ‘Watch it’, ‘Turn’, ‘Look Out’ mean nothing.  Remember, I’m blind, not psychic!” Everyone who runs where there are other road users should remember to wear a reflective running vest or reflective belt to ensure high visibility in all weather and light conditions. Here are some running techniques for blind runners from the official YouTube page of the National Federation of the Blind:


Simon Wheatcroft has been legally blind since the age of 17 having been born with a degenerative eye disease – Retina Pigmentosa (RP).  This was only diagnosed when Simon was 9 and he was expected to retain most of his vision well into his adult life but he had lost his sight by the age of 28.  Simon started his running life by running on a football field but found the dog walkers and their canine companions kept bumping into him.  He then decided that he would run on a closed road, using the feel of the yellow lines under his feet as a guide and using the phone app, Run Keeper, to tell him the distance he had travelled and his pace. His partnership with the app company and AirBNB has also culminated into a web-focused comprehensive account of his journey from Boston to NYC. Simon Wheatcroft soon got bored with his small closed road and decided to try his luck at running along the yellow lines on the nearby dual carriageway, trusting that the cars would try and avoid knocking him over.  Simon gradually learnt where the lamp posts and other hazards were and had a three mile route which he could happily run on his own. Simon now wanted a challenge, so he chose to run a 100 mile race in the Cotswolds in England, as a mere marathon didn’t seem far enough.  He ran 83 miles of that race unaided.  In 2014 Simon Wheatcroft achieved what very few people would even contemplate.  He ran from Boston to New York and then ran the New York marathon. He has recently scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest point, with a group of three other people to raise funds for charities. Simon was not interested in breaking any records, he just wanted to enjoy himself and interact with people along the way. He is also a powerful motivational speaker and holds talks in the States and the UK in an effort to raise money for various organisations which assist the blind.  Simon is also part of a group that are encouraging people to become running guides to help people who are visually impaired to fulfil their dreams.


Hiking is a marvellous way to get back to nature and unwind.  Partially sighted and blind people can enjoy hiking with the help of a guide or a guide dog and some have even hiked thousands of miles solo.  Many people have commented that even though they don’t have their sight, the heightening of their senses such as touch, sound and smell is so great, that they feel their sighted counterparts miss out on the experience.


Trevor Thomas is an adrenaline junkie who found his first thrill at the age of three – downhill skiing.  Over the years Trevor followed this with racing cars, extreme mountain biking, sky diving and any other high risk sport he could think of.  At the age of 35, after only eight months of being diagnosed with a rare incurable eye disorder, Trevor was blind. After suffering from depression for many months due to loss of self esteem and his reliability on others, a friend of Trevor’s suggested that he start hiking as a way to regain some of his independence.   Trevor thought that hiking was far too tame for him and had never even contemplated it before. He began slowly and said that on one visit to his outfitters he decided he would hike the 2,175 mile Appalachian Trail on his own.  Trevor said, “As you can expect, my family thought I had lost my mind along with my eyesight!” Eighty per cent of hikers who start the Appalachian Trail pull out before the end, so imagine the challenges facing a blind hiker.  Trevor’s outfitter had done the AP a few years before and spent months trying to get Trevor as ready as he could for this long hike.  Trevor began his journey and would tell hikers he met that he was blind and hiking the whole trail, and asked them to confirm exactly where he was on the trail and if he was still walking in the right direction. This worked well at the beginning of the trail as there were so many hikers but as Trevor moved on so he met less and less people who could confirm his whereabouts.  Trevor found that he was hiking more and more on his own.  Trevor was surprised to find that the people he met found him and his journey inspirational.  He said it gave him a chance to share his story with people and explain what it was like being blind.  His fellow hikers kept asking him where he was going to hike next – a thought which hadn’t even entered his head, but now the seed was sown.  Trevor’s trail companions gave him the trail name of ‘Zero/Zero’; a reference to his blindness. Since his 2008 hike of the AP trail, Trevor has hiked over 18,000 miles on some of the world’s toughest trails.  More recently, he has been joined by his guide dog, Tennille.  Trevor expresses how important Tennille is in life, “Getting Tennille was probably the best decision I ever made since going blind.  She has changed blindness from a negative to a positive, especially with my interaction with people.  Now that I have Tennille people want to engage with us, they want to find out more about this amazing dog I have....Just the sheer companionship alone is worth its weight in gold.  Tennille’s not only a guide, she’s a friend. In 2014 Trevor Thomas founded the Team Far Sight Foundation whose main goal is to empower visually impaired and blind young adults through hiking.


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