Weather Worlds with Sight Impairment

In recent years there have been growing calls for people to reconnect with nature. Yet we’ve heard little about the role of the weather in shaping our experiences each time we step outside.

‘Negotiating nature’s weather worlds in the context of life with sight impairment’ was a collaborative paper written by Sarah Bell, Catherine Leyshon and Cassandra Phoenix, informed by Sarah’s two-year, ESRC-funded Sensing Nature research project.

The paper reflects on how changes in the intensity of the light, the touch of the wind, and the flow of the rain can influence the quality of time spent with nature, as discussed by Sensing Nature research participants.

Many participants explained how the elements offered a sense of connection to the world through supporting valued tactile sensations, including the feeling of a gentle breeze or the sun’s warmth on the skin. At times, these weather flows heightened other pleasurable aspects of nature, including wind stirring leaves in the trees, and humidity bringing out the scents of flowers and plants.

Yet these same elements – albeit at different intensities – also caused feelings of disorientation and isolation, masking important sensory clues that participants often used to navigate their environment.

Intense experiences of light, for example, can bleach out colour and compromise depth perception. Strong winds, heavy rain and snowfall can mask valued auditory clues used for spatial orientation and wayfinding. Participants highlighted how negotiating such experiences often required skilled practice over time, alongside resourceful improvisation.

Some participants likened the lack of light and challenges in getting out and about in winter as “akin to constant jet lag” through its impacts on the body’s internal (circadian) rhythms and sleep quality.

Given these experiences, it is perhaps not surprising that many participants talked about the pleasures of seasonal change, and particularly the onset of spring.

These findings have important implications for how we can promote more inclusive nature experiences. Building ‘weather work’ into long cane or guide dog training sessions, for example, could help people to build confidence during difficult weather conditions.

Alterations could also be made to existing path and street networks to include more comprehensive tactile way-finding clues in areas that are, for example, more exposed to high wind speeds or areas predisposed to dappled light or disorientating glare effects.

Relevant individuals and organisations (e.g. families, friends, employers) also need to be aware of weather conditions or particular times of year when additional flexibility might be valued in maintaining or rescheduling day-to-day activities and commitments, allowing people to move ‘with’ rather than against the weather.

The study is published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, with an open access version available here.

This summary is adapted from the Sensing Nature news page.