Sight loss doesn’t need to be a barrier to sport, says RNIB Chief Executive

As Birmingham and the UK gets ready to host the IBSA World Games Opening Ceremony on Friday, August 18, we sat down with Matt Stringer, Chief Executive of Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and lead sponsor of the IBSA World Games, on the what hosting the World Games means for the country’s two million blind and partially sighted community, as well as the uniquely unifying power of sport.

The 2023 IBSA World Games is here. What are you looking forward to most?

I am delighted that RNIB is the World Games Lead Sponsor which will showcase and highlight the talents and skills of athletes who are blind or partially sighted from all over the globe in Birmingham.

There are many sports that people wrongly think blind and partially sighted people are unable to participate in, and hopefully the World Games will challenge these misconceptions and this is something I am looking forward to most – seeing spectators watching blind or partially sighted people do sports that they didn’t think were possible.

The World Games will see around 1,250 blind and partially sighted athletes from 70 countries competing in 10 sports – three of which include men’s blind football, men’s and women’s goalball, and judo which are qualification tournaments for the 2024 Paralympic Games. This is amazing.

I’m a massive sports fan so I hope to catch most of the 10 sports, but if I had to choose I’d love to be on the touchline at the football and at the dojo for judo.

How important a role can sport play in changing the lives of blind or partially sighted people?

Blind and partially sighted people know how beneficial it is to stay fit and active, but for many with sight loss it is not accessible to actually get involved in physical sport.

RNIB aims to tackle lower levels of wellbeing amongst blind and partially sighted people by highlighting the benefits of physical activity, and demonstrating to blind and partially sighted people and the sports industry alike that sight loss doesn’t need to be a barrier to participation.

Besides the physical benefits, there are range of mental health benefits: confidence, community, belonging, social networks, can often support access to technology and lead to volunteering or employment opportunities.

Do you have any personal, real-life examples that you can share about the positive impact that sport has had on you, your family or friends?

Sport has played an important part of my life and it is something that I am lucky to do.

Exercise is for everyone, regardless of age, weight, ability, or sight loss. Whether it is simple chair exercises or a cardio workout, there is something out there for everyone. The important thing is to get started and do something.

I’ve been a keen sports player since I was very young – my favourite pastime seemed to be following a ball around the garden. This evolved into playing rugby, hockey and cricket at school, and football for a club on Sundays. I’ve dabbled badly in tennis and golf, and when I became too injured to play rugby, I started running and completed a variety of half-marathons in Bristol and Bath and managed to get around three London marathons. I now seem to have regressed to walking the dog (!), but getting out into the fresh air for exercise is vital.

What advice would you give to blind or partially sighted people who are considering getting involved in sport in their local area?

Our research shows that blind and partially sighted people are being put off from sport and exercise and are twice as likely to be completely inactive as other people, and that one in three blind and partially sighted people said there were sports or fitness activities they would like to try but haven’t been able to.

RNIB and British Blind Sport (BBS) launched the See Sport Differently participation campaign to tackle the disparity of physical activity amongst blind and partially sighted people. We’ve developed a range of resources for the sector to help raise awareness of sight loss so more people can get involved.

RNIB and British Blind Sport have created an accessible online hub to provide information and guidance on accessible sports and activities and how blind and partially sighted people can get involved. This portal includes an interactive quiz where people can find out what sports and activities best suit them. Try it by clicking here! There are so many ways to get active, if you try one and don’t like it, try another and find an activity that’s right for you.

The campaign also sets out the barriers faced by people with sight loss and celebrates their journey to get involved and stay active by taking part in swimming, martial arts and adapted team sports such as goalball.

Creating positive wellbeing through fair and equal participation in physical activity and the opportunity to experience sport in an inclusive way is a key priority for RNIB.

Why did RNIB decide to sponsor the 2023 IBSA World Games?

We whole heartedly support the World Games and what it’s trying to achieve – it is a huge opportunity to showcase inclusive sport and demonstrate our commitment to the sector.

IBSA World Games has the potential to be a watershed moment for the two million people in the UK who are blind or partially sighted – many of whom are currently reluctant to engage in sporting activities due to a range of factors.

Not only will this World Games showcase to the wider public blind and partially sighted athletes’ abilities, it’s aiming to inspire other blind and partially sighted individuals to take advantage of the pathways into sport and other volunteering opportunities in their own communities.

Are there any issues that RNIB is trying to highlight currently that they are hoping the 2023 IBSA World Games can help to address as well?

RNIB is committed to social change by raising awareness of sight loss more broadly and showcasing that blind and partially sighted people can get involved in all the same things that fully sighted people can.

RNIB is delivering its ambitious new strategy which aims to tackle the root cause of inequality by challenging misconceptions and stereotypes to create a more inclusive society, and where blind and partially sighted people can participate equally.

What legacy are you hoping the 2023 IBSA World Games will leave behind, especially as it is being held in the UK for the first time in its history?

It is hoped that this global event will encourage more people with sight loss to get involved in sport as well as encouraging sports providers to take proactive steps to be welcoming and inclusive.

There are many sports that people wrongly think blind and partially sighted people are unable to participate in and hopefully the World Games will challenge these misconceptions.

Also, I am sure the athletes will savour the opportunity and produce some memorable performances to wow the public packing out the venues. This is a great opportunity for British athletes to experience a home games.