Blind to danger but alive to the thrills

4th August 2006 at 01:00
Jean McLeish takes to the Spey with a unique group of white water rafters

It's a brave man who would take three boatloads of high-spirited teenagers white water rafting down the rapids of the river Spey in Morayshire, especially when many of them are blind.

The man is Dick Arrowsmith and today he's listening to the river's soundtrack and being "the eyes" for the blind and visually impaired youngsters on his raft as they paddle it, bouncing and spinning, downstream.

"We're in about the middle of the river now and either side is lined with trees and just behind that there are fields. We've just passed some Highland cows, you know the shaggy ones with the big long horns, and round the next bend we come to the first rapids," he tells them.

He asks what people can hear and seconds later the crew begin to brace themselves for the rising roar of rushing water ahead, and everyone is paddling like mad as he urges them on down the tumbling river. There's silent concentration as the 10-strong group of students and teachers carve their way downstream, then cheers of relief as they reach calmer water.

Nineteen-year-old Sarah Walker, blind from birth, is in her element: "That was fantastic. It's wet and wild and I like stuff like that, its bumpy and exciting."

Later, on a lazy stretch of the river, Mr Arrowsmith asks if anyone fancies cooling off in the Spey. Sarah flips over the side without hesitation, floating for a moment alongside the raft, then is helped back aboard laughing, quite unfazed by the chill river.

Sarah's a regular on the water, listing her interests as sailing, canoeing, kayaking. "We have our own sailing boat at Windermere, we do lots of cycling, climbing and gorge walking with the Outlook Trust who brought us on this trip," she says.

A family of oystercatchers pierce the stillness further downstream. "I bet you don't get that noise in Bradford," Dick Arrowsmith calls out.

"No, it's all cars and trucks," 18-year-old Daniel replies.

The group is spending a week at the nearby Lagganlia Centre for Outdoor Education, where Mr Arrowsmith is principal. The centre works for the Children and Families Department of Edinburgh City Council. When it is not booked out to their young people, it is available for public bookings.

This is the first time it has been used by an entire group of blind and visually impaired youngsters. The Outlook Trust brought this group of 14 from Bradford and a few other local authority areas. "It's an absolute joy," Mr Arrowsmith says, back on dry land. "Their bravery, their determination, their enthusiasm and the expression on their faces is what makes my job worth doing."

He has made the trip look effortless, but everything is meticulously planned and extra staff laid on. The group has had coaching and familiarisation the rafts on dry land before getting on to the river.

Staff who buddy those with impaired vision are instructed to get into the water immediately to assist anyone who falls overboard. Today, fortunately, anyone in the river has gone in by choice.

Felicity Murgatroyd is advisory deputy head teacher for visual impairment and inclusion, based at Hanson Upper School in Bradford, and organised the trip with colleagues and volunteers from the Outlook Trust charity. "They love this. For them, the more exciting it is the better because generally day to day life is slow-paced if you are blind. You either have to move around independently slowly, because you are using a cane, or you are being guided by a sighted guide," she says.

"So activities like this today, where they get that feeling of freedom and movement, and the wind rushing past them, and speed where nobody is holding on to them or restraining them - they love the speed and independence."

Her former teaching colleague Simon Sims is also on this trip. He formed the Outlook Trust after organising adventure activities for his visually impaired young pupils, and then realised there was a huge demand for such activities across the UK.

More than five years on, he wants the trust to operate full-time rather than being reliant on the goodwill of volunteers at weekends. "There is a market. Every activity we do we could fill two or three times over. We push them very hard and expect them to be able to do all the activities. It's not I can't - it's I can and I will."

michael russell 13 A free DVD with information about Lagganlia for parents and teachers is available through www.lagganlia.com.

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