Shooting in the dark: blind archery because disability should never mean inability

The archers take their position and I stand behind the line hoping the clicking from my camera isn't putting anyone off.
I needn't have worried. John Bower, one of four national champion bowmen in the group, shoots a bulls-eye effortlessly.
It's a pretty impressive feat given that he’s been totally blind since 1982.
Even more impressive is that John had never been an archer before his sight loss diagnosis thirty-five years earlier.
"It was something I had never done before as a sighted person and I thought it would be a good challenge," he said.
I was surprised how John could shoot with so much noise, but he said the group liked a good chatter. See for blind veterans like John these weekly archery sessions provide a vital opportunity to engage in a social sport, even if he gets a little over competitive in front of friends. 
"Archery demonstrates what visually impaired people can really do, and what new skills they can learn, instead of just focusing on what we are no longer able to do"


The Princess Royal spinal injuries unit, situated in Northern General Hospital, is known as the home of the Sheffield Steelers wheelchair basketball team, but each week it also plays host to a group of visually impaired archers.
 The facility is considered one of the best in Sheffield for disability sport and is easily accessible for door to door pick up. Accessibility is a must when finding your way home can be very difficult.  The group is ran by Janete and Les Culf, who are involved with the Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind.
Like John, many members are referred to the group through the charity Blind Veterans UK, of which Les is also a member. The sight loss of members ranges from partial to total blindness, with some members also suffering from gradual degeneration of vision as they continue to get older.  Les and Janete coach new members but they also help the archers change their attitude towards their diagnosis. "Groups like ours focus on what visually impaired people can really do, and what new skills they can learn, not just what they are no longer able to do." says Les. 


For those not familiar with the sport, blind archery raises a lot of obvious, if a tad personal questions. How does the archer know which direction to shoot? How does the archer know where its safe to stand? How do they know what they've shot if they can't see? Is it safe? For answers to these questions I spoke to Wendy Hewkin, John’s spotter.
She was referred as a volunteer to John by Blind Veterans UK. The charity said they firmly believed that "disability should never mean inability".She told me that a good spotter-archer relationship is based on trust and of course how well you both get along.
Equipment also plays a big part according to Wendy. If an archer is fully blind they will need a foot locator. These look a little like the measuring devices you see in shoe shops and they keep the archer's feet firmly in position so they know where to stand. 
"Some archers use foot-locators and a tactile sight to aim at the target, with a sighted spotter telling them exactly where the arrow hits. Other archers have sufficient vision to use a bow-sight" according to Blind Veterans UK. 
Some archers will also use a tripod to mount their bow. This helps with the direction of the shot. However, I still wondered how archers knew where to shoot if they couldn't clearly see the board.
"Me and John developed a system. Before he became visually impaired John was able to memorize a clock face. This means I don’t have to go, up a bit, down a bit. Instead we colour code the board and use the direction of a clock face.
For example, I might say 12 o clock blue. This way John knows what he is aiming for," said Wendy.After John has finished shooting he and Wendy walk arm in arm to the target, where John can feel for the first time what he's shot.
For John this is serious business. A competitive sportsman, John thrashes fully sighted players all the time.
 "It's a great feeling when I can compete with fully sighted players and still come out on top" 


Being blind can make people feel completely cut off from the world around them. Often older people experience depression as a result of their diagnosis, but social sport clubs are one of the many ways of reconnecting blind people with those around them.
Of the four archers shooting that day, three were older gentlemen experiencing further site loss into their old age, and each been had referred to the group through Blind Veterans UK.  According to a study by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (UK) the age demographic of the archers that day was really no accident.The study found that found that over 2 million people, almost one in thirty, live with sight loss in the UK, a number which is growing as the population of the UK is living longer than ever before.
Age-related macular degeneration is the number one cause of sight loss in the UK. Sadly with age many of the partially sited archers, who were able to shoot unaccompanied, said they could one day require a spotter like Wendy.
With more people experiencing sight loss it is vital that groups like this continue to support members through social sport activities, so that nobody feels alone in the dark.