The Blind Side of Visual Impairment

How do we experience the world? It’s a philosophical debate that has been on the lips of academics for centuries.

 In circa 325 BC in Ancient Greece, Aristotle published ‘De Anima’, a major treatise about the soul, in which he outlined the five senses, a theory he is credited with popularising that has been the foundations of the evolution of humanity. Touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste. But what would you do if 40% of those essential sensory faculties were diminished, or eradicated completely?

Well, that’s the reality for Neil Balmforth, a 52-year-old who suffers with Ushers syndrome type 2A, a genetic condition characterised by progressive hearing and vision loss, which typically begins in adolescence. The visual part of that condition is Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP).

However, it’s safe to say his condition doesn’t define him. As Neil warned me candidly: “Are you ready for a sick brag?”

Neil is World number two and Great Britain’s number one Men’s player at B3 tennis and has held that title for the last two years. B3 is a disability sport classification for people who have partial vision. He came agonisingly close to winning the tennis final of the International Blind Sports Association (IBSA) games last year as he was narrowly defeated by the World number one.

15-LOVE: Neil Balmforth hard at work training for the World Championships next summer.

Neil has flourished into one of the world’s best in a relatively short space of time and his tennis journey has humble beginnings. It all started with a simple taster session back in 2017 and the rest, you can say, is history. From playing in the local gym against a friend, to contesting at the hallowed courts of Wimbledon, to potentially going to the World Championships in Italy next summer, it has been quite the few years for the 52-year-old. Accomplishments that seemed impossible to Neil when he was diagnosed.

OUT: A brief introduction to the World of Visually Impaired Tennis.

“What you got to think about is, from the age of 20 all my sports ideas of what I’d like to do evaporated. I had the diagnosis, and they couldn’t tell me what would happen to me.”

Neil was diagnosed at the age of 20, but it had been affecting his vision as early as 12 years old. The diagnosis confirmed the condition, but it is impossible to accurately predict the extent or pace. As the name suggests, RP affects the retina, the light-sensitive layer of tissue in the back of the eye.

The disorder’s impact is different for every individual and it hits people at different ages, something that Neil knows all too well. He regularly offers advice to people who have just been diagnosed, with hopes of easing their mind as he is proof that the future isn’t as bleak as it may seem.

“I find that most people with RP are in denial,” Neil admitted, his wry smile disappearing as the mood of the conversation shifted.

“They know something’s wrong with them but they generally, I mean I’m talking about myself now, you put it off. I got a diagnosis quite early and then I stayed out of the system for twenty plus years. My life just became narrower and narrower.”

To the delight of his loved ones, Neil took the advice he gives to many and got the help he needed as his sight and hearing started to deteriorate. For the best part of a decade, he has been accompanied on his sporting and musical exploits by his guide dog Uffa.

“He took me to a gig two weeks ago in a major arena and the harder his job gets the more switched on he becomes. It’s just an amazing thing and the bond between you is just unbelievable.

He’s a Rolls Royce of a mobility aid if you like, he is special.”

Man’s Best Friend: Uffa and Neil on a trip to Anglesey.

According to the Royal National Institute of Blind people (RNIB) over two million people are estimated to be living with sight loss in the UK. By 2050, this figure is expected to double. However, the visually impaired community is endowed with talent in the UK with Neil being a prime example. Neil has been registered blind for over three decades now, but visual impairments affect people of all ages.

Rain Bow Mbuangi is a fellow visually impaired sportsman, but he isn’t gracing the tennis courts like Neil.  Instead of tightly gripping a racquet, Rain Bow can be found with a football at his feet. His sporting path has several parallels with Neil as his rise to the top has been quick and unexpected. At only 21 years old, he regularly represents England.

“Representing your country is such an honour.  I could never imagine in my wildest dreams I would be called up and it is such a privilege every time I step out on the pitch,” Rain Bow explained.

Rain Bow was diagnosed with several eye conditions as a teenager. In his left eye his retina is detached and in his right eye he suffers with nystagmus. These conditions have rendered him close to complete blindness, with little light perception remaining. That diagnosis would knock the wind out of the sails of even the most optimistic of people, but Rain Bow has completely embraced the diagnosis.

 His personality is as colourful as his name and his positive outlook to life brings joy to his peers and teammates alike. Despite this, it may still be surprising to hear that if given the choice, Rain Bow wouldn’t change anything.

“I had to embrace it. It has given me so many opportunities that I would never have had otherwise. I always tell people not to think of it as a disability, just as a different ability.”

Both Neil and Rain Bow are working hard to ensure their sporting success continues on the pitch and positivity within the visually impaired community continues off the pitch. So, what would you do if any of your senses were impaired? The answer from Neil and Rain Bow; stay positive, because you’ve got no other choice but to get on with it.