Motorists are mostly unaware of how different their lives would be if they lost their sight and independence. Health Correspondent Emma Brady donned a blindfold and drove around a Midland RAF base to find out what it feels like.
The queue of driving instructors and learners’ vehicles were at odds with the cavalcade of Harley Davidsons parked at RAF Cosford, near Wolverhampton, as part of a Midland charity’s blind drive at the weekend.
Beacon Centre for the Blind, based in Wolverhampton, invited sighted and visually impaired people to drive around the base to raise money for their £3 million Second Site Appeal, to help fund a £18 million project for a new day centre and specialist accommodation.
But the event, which raised £5,000 on Sunday, also sought to raise public awareness about how being blind can leave individuals feeling isolated and vulnerable.
In order to do this, drivers with 20:20 vision were asked to don black-out goggles and to rely only on the instructor’s voice as they drove two laps around RAF Cosford.
This was not like putting on ‘fly-style’ shades popular with celebrities and non-entities alike. No, these shades plunged me into total darkness.
Despite knowing where the steering wheel was and that Steve Austin, my instructor, had his feet hovering over the dual controls, I immediately felt very nervous and feared I would hit someone or something.
My spatial awareness is dodgy at the best of times but take away the ability to see what’s happening around you, and it is impossible to get a sense of where you are or where you are going.
Turning the wheel slowly to the left, at a top speed of about 10mph, I began to feel uneasy.
Normally I drive around Birmingham in my nippy Toyota Aygo and am not afraid of the accelerator when on motorways, so I was surprised at how fast this felt without being able to see what was in front of me.
But as Steve guided me round the two lap course he urged me to speed up “you can go to 20mph”, but I struggled to reach such a pace especially with the growl of Harley Davidsons haring around the same course as a reward to drivers afterwards.
Although I was reluctant to put my foot down I did have a very near miss on the second lap. I came within millimetres of a kerb and a rather chunky lamppost. Although I was turning corners and navigating the course, I had no idea where the car was in the road.
Taking my goggles off and realising how close I’d come to a prang, it did make me wonder what would have happened had I been driving at a normal speed of 30 or 40mph.
Mr Austin, who lives in Stourbridge, said: “Many of the visually impaired drivers I’ve taken round today have been better students, they paid more attention to what I was saying than your average sighted 17-year-old who, because he can see, thinks he understand the rules and risks of the road.
“In many cases they actually drove better and were more relaxed than those wearing the blindfolds, because they weren’t worrying about what they couldn’t see unlike the sighted drivers.
“The visually impaired found the experience really thrilling, where as you were worried about turning the wheel too far and not being able to see what was in front of you.
“But I think this has given everyone a priceless experience: Sighted people get out of the car with a better understanding of what it feels like to be blind or visually impaired, while those with sight problems have had the chance to do something they can’t do in everyday life.”
The event also gave dozens of blind people the chance to realise a lifelong ambition of getting behind the wheel, to get a taste of what driving would be like. Barry Butt, the charity’s appeal manager, was among the first to hit the road.
He said: “I’ve been blind since birth, so I’ve never known what it feels like to get behind the wheel of a car, until today which was fantastic.
“Although my fastest speed was only 20mph it felt much faster but I had absolute trust in my instructor, Steve Austin, who did an excellent job.
“I think it’s important that this event raises awareness and give sighted people the opportunity to experience ‘blindness’ to help them understand how vision-impaired people have to cope and rely on others in everyday life.”
* The Beacon Centre began life in 1875 as the Wolverhampton Society for the Blind. Its purpose was to visit blind people in the area and to give them an opportunity to learn to read by deciphering embossed type.
The charity bought a house in Alexandra Street in 1892 where five men could work, and seven years’ later it had workshops and small business where baskets, chairs, and mats were woven and sold.
That ethic of helping visually impaired people to help themselves has not changed since the organisation first came into being.
Now, more than 100 years after those first buildings came into use, the Beacon Centre offers various support services to more than 3,000 people across the Black Country.
Currently the Beacon Centre provides residential care for blind people aged over 65 as well as accommodation for more independent individuals.
Volunteers and staff at the centre also provide a range of activities such as keep fit, swimming, and arts and crafts. They also produce a talking newspaper and a team of outreach workers also visit people in their own homes to give help and advice.
The charity’s Second Site Appeal aims to raise £3 million of the £18 million needed to build new self-contained flats and day centre to meet the growing need for improved facilities.
For more information about the charity visit www.beacon4blind.co.uk and to support its fund-raising efforts go to www.secondsiteappeal.co.uk or call 01902 880111.