The archers take their position and I stand behind the line hoping my camera clicking isn’t putting anyone off. I needn’t have worried. John, who competes at a professional level, shoots a bulls-eye effortlessly, a pretty impressive feat given he’s been blind since 1982. This week JUS News gets a lesson in archery for the visually impaired and just what it feels like to shoot in the dark.
The Princess Royal spinal injuries unit, situated in Northern General Hospital, is known as the home of the Sheffield Sharks wheelchair basket ball team, but each week it also plays host to a group of visually impaired archers. The group is organised by Janete and Les Culf, who are involved with the Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind, and many are also referred to the group through the charity Blind Veterans UK.
I was apprehensive about the sport at first, I’d always thought archery was all about the hand to eye co-ordination but John Bower, whose been visually impaired since 1982, reassured me that he “hadn’t killed anyone yet” and that he regularly thrashed fully sighted players.
John, who takes part in a variety of blind sports, said he enjoyed archery most because he had never played it before he lost his sight.
“I used to love golf, now I can’t play like I used to as and it is very frustrating to me, as I’m very competitive. I’d never really done archery before I began loosing my vision. It meant I didn’t constantly compare my performance to how I played when I could see and it meant I could just enjoy it,” said John.
For those not familiar with the sport like myself, obviously 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? 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. She told me that a good spotter-archer relationship is based on trust and of course how well you both get along.
Equipment plays a big part according to Wendy. If an archer is fully blind they will need a foot guide. These look a little like the measuring devices you see in shoe shops and they keep the archers feet firmly in position so they know were to stand. 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 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. He then walks back to his bow with Wendy and begins shooting again. For John this is serious business. A competitive sportsman, John competes with fully sighted players all the time. He said it was a great feeling when he could compete with fully sighted players and still come out on top.
Many of the archers are visually impaired servicemen, including Les who organised the group. He said that the social element of the group was very important to veterans and that having somewhere to come once a week was very important to those losing their vision who wanted to reconnect with their past. Particularly as some of the archers found their already ailing sight worsening into old age.
The group provides not just an opportunity to engage in social sport but it also helps people to realise their potential. Les said: “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.”