Number 54 • January 2015

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Deafblind bushwalkers in Western Australia1

Research has suggested that a person who is deafblind is at greater risk of developing conditions affecting their physical and mental health. Studies have identified a greater mortality risk to people who are deafblind compared with the general population.

For a person who is deafblind there is often limited opportunity for physical activity impacting on their overall health with the potential over time of developing health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

Likewise depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions can be attributed to the social isolation that many people with deafblindness experience.

Sharyn Mitchell (age 50) has Usher Type II and is an active member of the Usher Syndrome Support Group in Western Australia (USSGWA). Early in 2013 Sharyn set herself a challenge to walk the Bibbulmun Track end-to-end that would take between 7 and 8 weeks to complete.

The Bibbulmun Track2 is listed in the top 20 World Best Hikes: Epic Trails in the National Geographic. “South Western Australia’s answer to the Appalachian Trail...”

Officially opened in 1998 following an extension and upgrade, the Bibbulmun Track was named after an Aboriginal sub-group of the Noongar people in the South West of Australia. Winding through State Forrest the Track covers almost 1000 km (over 600 miles) of isolated, rugged bushland, in the largest state of Australia, starting in Kalamunda (near Perth) and finishing in Albany on the Southern Ocean.

Other members of the USSGWA expressed an interest in joining Sharyn. This was not a Senses Australia initiative and the deafblind walkers took the lead in planning and organising the challenge under Sharyn’s leadership calling themselves the Usher Army! Their goal:

• To walk the Bibbulmun Track

• To raise awareness of Usher Syndrome

l To raise funds to support the USSGWA

… and to Defy Adversity!

The group were soon to be joined by two other deafblind walkers.

Greg (age 36, previously from Western Australia, now living in New South Wales).

…and Rita (age 53 – Usher II) who joined July 2013 having emigrated from the UK to Perth

What preparation was required to make this dream a reality?

Some difficult decisions were made along the way. Due to personal circumstances Sharyn decided that she would not continue with the walking, however, she and her partner would remain involved in the planning and practical support needed on the walks.
The other decision made due to the logistics of coordinating walkers and volunteers around work commitments was to walk the track in sections (there are 9 sections in total) rather than walking end-to-end in one go. One section has now been completed. The next trek is planned for April 2015.

Fund raising was a must. Sharyn and her partner were involved in fund raising, securing small grants and sponsorship and Senses Australia also supported in applying for grants.

Guidance was sought from local “experts” who provided their knowledge of practical skills needed and advising of numerous risks associated with the bush walking, some seasonal such as snakes, spiders and ticks. Other risks included potential falls and rough terrain, dehydration and availability of water. Walking during summer months was avoided due to extreme weather conditions and potential of bush fires.
Sighted guide volunteers were recruited including a number of staff from Senses Australia. Training started in May 2013 with practice walks initially every 2 to 3 weeks eventually becoming weekly training walks averaging around 8 km gradually increasing in length up to 25 km to build up fitness levels.

Sighted guide volunteers were recruited including a number of staff from Senses Australia. Training started in May 2013 with practice walks initially every 2 to 3 weeks eventually becoming weekly training walks averaging around 8 km gradually increasing in length up to 25 km to build up fitness levels… …and stepping it up to the bush walks practising the real thing with back packs weighted as this would be a requirement when camping.

Sighted guiding required lots of concentration, as seen with Don and Kirsten-Lee supporting George to negotiate a deep drop using tactile signs agreed beforehand to deal with tricky terrain.

Health benefits of Bushwalking

As time went on some positive changes in the Usher walkers were observed including increased confidence, and evidence of health benefits. There was also a social aspect to the walking, meeting at the pub afterwards!

Beyond Blue, a national depression initiative in Australia promotes the benefits of bush walking to improve mental health, stating that contact with nature and green spaces is a key to aid physical and psychological well-being (Beyond Blue to Green: The benefits of contact with nature for mental health and well-being, 2010 l

Questionnaires and Interviews

After completing the first section of the Bibbulmun Track recently, all six deafblind walkers were approached to complete a questionnaire and to be interviewed on their personal experience of bush walking.

Six out of six questionnaires were completed and five interviews took place (one of the walkers was about to move to the Eastern States).

Summary of responses to the questionnaire:

Although Sharyn was no longer walking with the group she reported that she was walking most days along the beach in her local area.

Having individual personal goals and the overall goal of walking the track gave the deafblind walkers a sense of achievement that motivated them to increase their exercise routines.

Physical Health:

All six deafblind walkers reported an improvement in their physical health and all reported weight loss.

At time of interview Rita was recovering from major cancer surgery. Medical staff indicated that Rita’s recovery was aided by her fitness levels associated with walking.

Mental Health

All six deafblind walkers said they had experienced depression. Sharyn was open in her experience of depression saying that “In the past, and absolutely in the present and I would say in the future, it’s one of those constant effects because in particular with Usher Syndrome it’s a constant degeneration. You are always worsening.”

Five of the walkers acknowledged the benefits of bush walking in reducing mental health and a positive attitude. Likewise Sharyn felt her involvement in the project at an organisational level was also beneficial by having something to focus on.

The goal of completing the Bibbilumun Track is ongoing.

Emotional Health

All deafblind walkers reported learning new skills such as leadership skills, teamwork, organisational skills in addition to the practical skills required such as packing a back pack, bush etiquette, erecting a tent and survival in the bush.

Social Participation

All deafblind walkers said their social network had extended through the walks, meeting other walkers on the way, connecting with the community through fund raising and building friendships with volunteers.

Walkers were asked one final question. Were there any additional challenges you faced?

Rita of course had serious health problems that had challenged her recently.

David’s moved to Victoria just after the first walk may present challenges for him to join treks in the future.

All reported having falls at different times George said “When you walk along the bush and you fall, the challenge is to get back up and you do that time and time again”.

On one of the practice walks Eddie fell 2m from a bridge while walking ahead of the group to take photos, with little peripheral vision he missed the bridge fracturing his scapula. He returned to walking soon after. Limited access for emergency services meant it took 50 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.

To summarise:

Through their involvement in the walks all deafblind walkers experienced:

• Weight loss

• Improved confidence and self-esteem

Health benefits

• Motivation to continue

• Working as a team

• Support and encouragement from family and friends

• Reduced isolation

and they said walking helps:

• To take your mind off things

• Socialising and interacting with other people

• To feel part of a team

• To sleep better

To reduce stress

• Increase independence in orientation and mobility

• Influenced decision to have a guide dog

To keep active

• A sense of belonging

• Reducing isolation and loneliness

• Having fun!

As David said “The social element was a huge part of building a strong bond to facilitate safety, enjoyment and laughter”
Angela Wills

Deafblind Consultant, Senses Australia


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