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Melburnians with vision loss became reacquainted with the CBD, in a safe and supported way, at several recent walking tours, organised by Blind Sports & Recreation Victoria (BSRV).

There are around 90,000 Victorians who are blind or vision impaired, and BSRV is a small charity that supports them to lead healthier and more active lifestyles.

‘Social isolation can be an issue for people who are blind or vision impaired, even in the best of circumstances,’ said Amanda Webb, General Manager: Operations, Digital and Marketing, BSRV. ‘The COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns exacerbated this isolation.’

When changes occur to footpaths, infrastructure, public transport stops and laneways, it can be disorienting for people who are blind or vision impaired. And the CBD has had many changes in recent years, with the introduction of tram super stops, new bike lanes and more outdoor dining.’

The city is really busy, so there was this fear of navigating safely through crowds and getting on public transport,’ added BSRV Program Manager, Miriam Bilander.

Small group of people and guide dogs stand inside cathedral facing crucifix

Twenty-three people with vision loss enjoyed a historical tour of St Paul’s Cathedral, guided by volunteers

To address these issues, BSRV organised four walking tours with sighted volunteer guides.

The tours, which were supported by a City of Melbourne Connected Communities Grant, aimed to build the confidence of people with low vision to return to the city, while supporting the recovery of local businesses.

The grant funding meant we could provide the tours for free to participants. With many participants on disability pensions, that made the tours much more accessible, said Miriam.

Held between May and December 2022, the tours included a historical crime tour of Little Lonsdale Street, an MCG and Australian Sports Museum tour, St Paul’s Cathedral tour and a kayaking adventure on the Yarra River.

For a number of tour participants, it was their first trip to the city since COVID-19 began.

We also showed participants where to find accessible toilets and assistance – including Melbourne Visitor Hub and Travellers Aid Australia so that they’re more likely to continue travelling into and around the city, she added.

The tours were a big success, with many participants saying their confidence had grown as a result.

Nine kayaks sit on banks of the river, with woman at the front smiling

Adua (front) – who stays active playing blind table tennis, walking and tandem cycling – enjoyed the kayaking adventure on the Yarra River

‘People with vision loss can do everything sighted people can do, with little adjustments. But the barrier to participation is often a lack of confidence or not feeling like they are welcome.

In addition to helping participants safely navigate the city, Miriam said the tours also aimed to enhance social inclusion, and improve mental and physical health.

‘There’s a greater isolation experienced by people who are blind or have low vision, and they tend to be more sedentary. So we’ll find any excuse to help people connect socially and get active,’ said Miriam. ‘I’ve seen people be much more active, who wouldn’t otherwise leave their neighbourhoods.’

Participants also really enjoyed learning about the history of Melbourne and the MCG. All these stories being shared by volunteers at St Paul’s Cathedral. The volunteer at the MCG was a man in his 80s who has a lifetime of stories to share, shared Miriam.

For one tour participant, the highlight of the MCG tour was seeing the Long Room at the MCG close up: I was particularly impressed with the raised platform with ramp access provided for members in the Long Room. And I enjoyed touching the grass on the MCG,’ he said.

Miriam said the tours also promoted friendships among participants, and improved emotional wellbeing.

Group of people in life vests with woman in front holding kayak paddle

Miriam (front and centre) with the kayaking tour participants and volunteer guides, all kitted up and ready to paddle

While participants had vision loss in common, the tours gave them the added benefit of interacting with people they may not normally meet.

‘If you’re leading a more insular life, and spending time in your very local community, you may not have had the opportunity to interact with people from different backgrounds. So this has been an interesting and unexpected positive outcome of the tours,’ said Miriam.

We’ve seen community cohesion occur, as well as more compassion, acceptance and understanding of people with English as an additional language, asylum seekers and refugees, and people from the queer community. That’s been amazing to see,’ said Miriam.

Miriam said the tours also led to BSRV educating local service providers about vision loss and how to best support people with a disability, to ensure their services are more inclusive in the future.

‘I’ve had feedback from people who want to go to the NGV, but they have to get up close to the paintings, which can obviously make staff uneasy. So there’s room to make tours like these more inclusive,’ said Miriam.

Audio tours are all good, if you know which painting to stand in front of when you’re listening to it. You can be legally blind but still able to see a bit, you just need to stand closer.’

Kayaks paddling along the Yarra River in Southbank

Kayakers set off down the Yarra River from Birrarung Marr, past Flinders Street Station and through Southbank to the Docklands before heading back upstream

Get involved

BSRV offers a wide range of activities for people with vision loss, from blind tennis in the city every Friday, to online fitness programs and music quizzes.

That’s probably the best thing that came out of COVID-19; so much is now available online, explained Miriam.

Miriam encourages anyone with vision loss to join BSRV’s contact list to find out about different opportunities to be more active.

‘Even if you don’t know what you want to do in relation to sport, recreation or art, get in touch and we can help,’ said Miriam. ‘We can also help advocate on your behalf to ensure events and spaces are more inclusive.’

If you’d like to know more, visit the BSRV website.