Tue, Jul 05, 2011 - Page 16 News List

Sightseeing for blind people

Travel can be daunting if you have a visual impairment. But one firm organizes group holidays for blind and sighted people that are liberating, fun, and yes, eye-opening, too

By Jon Henley  /  The Guardian, London

Traveleyes tour company arranges for the visually impaired to vacation with “sighted guides,” who describe in detail to their companions sights such as this Roman fresco in Pompeii.

photo: REUTERS

So we’re standing in the street outside the brothel — or what used to be the brothel — in Pompeii. The one with the rude frescoes on the walls showing ancient Roman punters exactly what they could expect for their sesterces.

There are 20 of us, or thereabouts, and before we go in the man in the white cheesecloth shirt and the floppy sun hat would like a word.

“Ladies and gentlemen, our sighted guides,” says Amar Latif. “I’d just like to remind you of my words at the beginning of this holiday. You are not carers; you are fellow travelers, companions. And one of the most valuable things you can do is to describe in loving detail whatever you might see before you that is of visual interest. Here’s your chance.”

And so it is that Maggie Heraty, a jolly humanitarian logistics expert more used to organizing emergency relief operations in Liberia or Haiti, finds herself explaining to Jenny Tween, who works at the BBC and has optic atrophy, meaning she has been partially sighted since she was two, that here we have: “a gentleman, reclining. With a naked lady squatting on top.”

While over here, Heraty continues, undaunted by Tween’s snorts, we can see (or not, of course) “the doggy position. And just along from that, the lady’s on top of the gentleman, again. But facing his feet this time. Hmmm.” She pauses. “Sorry, Jenny. Just trying to work out the mechanics of that one. I don’t think I’ve ever tried it.”

It’s not, obviously, that these people spend their holiday discussing the sex lives of the Ancients.

But nor are they your regular holidaymakers. Half of them, for a start, are blind or visually impaired. The other half are fully sighted. The former have paid a bit more than they might do for a standard package holiday to come on this week-long break in Sorrento, southern Italy, including flights, transfers, half-board in a four-star hotel with pool, a cookery lesson and excursions to Pompeii, Capri and Positano.

The latter have paid quite a bit less. In exchange, every day they will take a different visually impaired traveler by the arm (not literally, there’s nothing a blind or partially sighted person — or “VI,” as they’re more familiarly known — loathes more than being patronized) and act as their guide. Show them, as it were, the sights.

Sighted travelers help VIs with obvious obstacles: curbs, low arches and doorways, busy roads, flights of stairs (“Step down. One more to go. That’s the bottom.”) They explain where the food is on a plate (“Chicken at three o’clock, peas at six”). And once in a while, they get to describe in loving detail the wall paintings in the Pompeii brothel.

It’s not hard. In fact it’s fun. You learn a lot. “You get to do things you wouldn’t normally do,” says Wendy Coley from Loughborough, England, a sighted veteran of many such expeditions. “Once, in China, they got to touch the terra-cotta warriors. Imagine. And the act of describing what you see ... You take in far more, somehow; see things in a very different way. It may sound silly, but going on holiday with blind people opens your eyes.”

It does. I tried it at Gatwick with Latif, the 36-year-old Glasgow-born entrepreneur who set up this strangely inspiring business seven years ago. Latif has been without 95 percent of his sight since his first year at university, thanks to an incurable eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa. He founded Traveleyes, as the company is called, because “no one was doing the kind of holiday I wanted to go on,” and as far as he knows it’s the only one of its kind in the world.

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