• Josh Chu-Tan

Running Blind - The experience

Updated: Jan 14

On Sunday, September 3rd, a number of people in our lab participated in the annual Canberra Times Fun Run, but with a minor caveat…we did it without our sense of sight. Nilisha Fernando and Helen Jiao walked the 5 km course blindfolded and Joshua Chu-Tan ran the 10 km course blindfolded.

Vision is so important to us. It mediates how we take in our surroundings and plays a major role into how we perceive the world around us the way we do. So the conception of this idea was not only to raise awareness for those suffering with severe visual impairment, but also so that we can gain a much better appreciation for what it is that we are researching and fighting for. However difficult it is to run 10 km on a single given day, imagine having to live the rest of your life without your vision. Here are the experiences written by those who took to the challenge:

Nilisha Fernando

Having worked in vision research for 6 years, I have developed an idea of what it might be like to experience blindness associated with retinal degenerations such as Age-Related Macular Degeneration. However, this was the first time I had actually experienced the complete loss of sight, one of our most valuable senses. For me, participating completely blind in the Fun Run was a significant challenge. I soon realised that in order to cope with the loss of my vision, I had to rely almost fully on my guide, Riemke, to lead me through the 5km course and keep the anxiety at bay. The trust that you place in that person is immense. This gave me some insight into the importance and value of guide dogs and carers for the visually-impaired. Overall this experience is one that I will remember, especially participating as part of the Clear Vision Research team. This experience has helped me better understand the diseases we work so hard towards curing.

Haihan (Helen) Jiao

The experience was difficult to describe with one word. At first, it was difficult to adapt being sightless. The moment I placed on my blindfold, the reality became real. Pitch darkness, loud noises, I was highly alarmed, I was completely lost… I panicked. Aimlessly swinging my arms out just to try to get my bearing before my first step. Then a hand held my hand, and a voice ‘I am here, we’ve got this keep walking’ calmed my nerves. So I was guided with two people by my side, not my usual. When I let go of the hand, I know the walk was up to my guide and me. From that moment on, I placed my ability to see completely in my guide, Tanja. She told me about the surrounding, where to turn, what to do. Slowly, I felt more at ease. My hearing was heightened knowing I need to pay attention to her voice and the sounds around me. My guide shared what she saw to me - the bridge, the building, the people, and me. Through her voice, I felt closer to my surrounding. That closure gave me comfort and calmness to finish the race. When it was quiet with no loud music playing in the background, I felt safer. Upon finishing off the race, I realised I was lucky to have my guide, and grateful for her support. Overall, this was an interesting experience from which I realised: being sightless is scary, but without help it is a whole lot scarier!

Joshua Chu-Tan

Excerpt from Nature blog

The first 20 minutes of the run was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I knew it would be difficult, of course I did, but I didn’t expect it to be as challenging as it was, particularly at the beginning. As I lined up at the start line, I took a good look at my surroundings before putting my blindfold on. As soon as my vision went black, every one of my other senses became heightened, particularly my hearing. With 1000 people around me, the anxiety set in quick. This was before I had even taken the first step. When the gun sounded, we were off. I could hear footsteps moving very quickly past me. I suddenly became very conscious of every step that I was taking, trying my best to run in what I thought was a straight line. However, with every step I felt as though my chances of tripping and falling over was increasing. My balance and perception was completely thrown off. The road was wide but it couldn’t have felt narrower to me. Every small pebble, every uneven bit of pavement that I stepped on I could feel perfectly under my shoes. Despite nobody being within ten metres of me (as my wonderful guide, Jordan, pointed out) I could hear their every movement, their footsteps, the swishing of their rain jacket, as if they were right next to me. It was disorienting. It was frightening. For millions of people around the world, it was their reality. That’s what scared me the most.

Here is a link to the Canberra Times article describing the event and what we did: