Sensing Nature with sight impairment


Client gardener Tony watering plants

Giving people with sight impairment access to nature helps them have a sense of belonging to the world. 

This sense of connectedness is one of the key findings of a project focusing on people with visual disabilities that was discussed at a recent conference called Sensing Nature.

Among the 31 people interviewed by researchers was Tony, a client gardener at Thrive Reading. As well as several interviews, project leader Dr Sarah Bell also spent a day working alongside Tony in our gardens.

The conference heard that greater autonomy and independence were identified as key desires among those interviewed about their experiences of engaging with nature.

But enabling them to do so requires a lot of skills and relationships, with the able-bodied needing to better understand and manage the risks involved.

The conference also heard: 

  • Those with sight impairments are keen to stress they are not a homogenous population
  • There’s a demand for more effective and tailored audio descriptions which will benefit everyone
  • Sensory gardens are not popular in themselves as all gardens are regarded as sensory spaces

Researchers believe their findings will have important implications for how we understand and promote more inclusive multi-sensory nature experiences for people with sight impairment.

Trish Matthews, Thrive’s Research Officer, said: "This research provides illuminating insights into the desires and needs of people with sight impairment. 

"It also shows how working with visually impaired clients can lead to a greater understanding of how people can engage with gardens through their other senses, and access other routes to restoration and healing. Thrive will be looking at ways we can use it to not only improve the experience of our client gardeners but in our professional training courses too."

One of the outcomes of the Sensing Nature project is that design guidelines are being produced to help those creating or managing urban green spaces with sight impairment in mind.

Also, Dr Bell has produced an Easing into Nature booklet for people living with sight impairment and for anyone keen to promote more opportunities to involve those with sight impairment in nature-based activities. 

The booklet, which highlights Thrive’s gardening resources aimed at those with visual disabilities, can be downloaded here.