Volunteering as a first step to disability research
Themes: Participation and partnerships
By Maryam Bandukda, GDI Hub and UCL Interaction Centre PhD Student
I am a PhD student at GDI Hub and UCL Interaction Centre (UCLIC) researching technologies to enhance the experience of blind and partially sighted people (BPSP) in natural spaces. My research brings together two of my passions: mental and physical benefits of nature, and equal access to and opportunities for disabled people to enjoy nature. I also had a personal interest in this research due to my own eye condition; I was born with severe congenital myopia which puts me at a high risk of vision loss due to retinal detachment.
Aside from a very basic knowledge of vision impairment from reading blogs and news articles, my understanding of vision loss was very limited when I began my research. I wanted to understand how people manage their daily activities without vision, their interests and preference for leisure activities and the barriers that limit their participation in such activities.
Volunteering with charities such as Royal Society for Blind Children (RSBC) and Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (Guide Dogs) gave me the opportunity to engage with BPSP while working as a sighted guide and learning about their experiences. It also allowed me to confirm my assumptions, which were often wrong as they were based on a lack of awareness and understanding of visual impairment. One of the common misconceptions about visual impairment and blindness is that a person with visual impairment or blindness cannot see at all. However, that’s not always the case. Visual impairment, like many other disabilities, is a spectrum which includes different levels and types of sight loss. It is also important to understand that each person with visual impairment has individual needs and preferences on how they do things. Therefore, the support they need also varies based on their independent living skills, time passed since sight loss, age, and lifestyle. Some of the people I supported as a volunteer guide were completely independent in their navigation skills and required minimal support, while others required sighted guidance.
Another benefit of volunteering with BPSP was being able to discuss my research ideas and gather feedback and suggestions from BPSP, their family members, volunteer coordinators, and other volunteers. This informal interaction helped me better understand the challenges that BPSP of different ages experience and explore the factors that ‘disable’ them from being an active contributor to their community and the wider society. I was able to meet people of different ages and abilities, from children in mainstream schools to teenagers in specialist residential colleges, and young adults in employment to older adults in retirement. Each individual had their unique experiences and perspectives to share, which broadened my understanding of vision impairments and enriched my volunteering experience. People were interested in arts and crafts, drama, music composition and singing, dance, fitness, sports, adventure, and nature. Basically, any activity that was inclusive, accessible, and most importantly fun. But, unfortunately, most of the outdoor and physical activities are not accessible and the activities organised by the charities were the only form of creative and outdoor exposure many BPSP had.
I have thoroughly enjoyed working as a volunteer and learning so much from engaging with people and having conversations about their interests and experiences. It has also been extremely important in helping me stay motivated and focused on my research. So, if you are a disability research student trying to figure out where to begin, I highly recommend volunteering for charities and groups that support disabled people. I guarantee that you’ll gain more than you’ll contribute.