Making a visual impairment visible during sport or recreation

For some time now I have been working on a plan for making a visual impairment more obvious to others during sports or outdoor activities. The idea is to increase the recognisability of athletes and recreationists with a visual impairment (and their buddies). The challenge is to design and develop a symbol(s) and range of functional applications for sports and recreation such as cycling, swimming, rowing, climbing, athletics, running, skating, (mountain) climbing, hiking, etc. This could also be used during everyday activities like travel or shopping.

Tabard used by blind Paralympic athlete

A self-made tabard used by a Paralympic athlete during skiing competitions. Three large black dots in inverted triangle formation printed on square yellow cloth. ‘BLIND’ is written with a thick black marker in French and English. The front and back are held together by elastics.
A self-made tabard used by a Paralympic athlete’s guide during skiing competitions. A triangle with exclamation mark is printed on a piece of square yellow cloth. The front and back are held together by elastics.

Participation and safety

The main purpose of developing a recognizable symbol and a set of accessories is to ensure the safe participation in sports and leisure activities. Depending on the visual impairment, a white cane and/or guide dog are often used to aid mobility. These provide recognizable and clear signals but for practical reasons they’re generally not used for sports or certain recreational activities. There is a widespread need for recognizable, practical and flexible solutions; positive, contemporary, fashionable with respect for the user, i.e. without stigmatizing. By making participation in activities safer and easier for those with a visual disabilty, this could in turn help to create more awareness and understanding among the wider public.

Current situation

These are some examples of clothing and accessories, many ad hoc, which are currently being used in the Netherlands. A special swimming cap has been developed; it’s white with two red stripes. The Running Blind Foundation has a logo printed on shirts and jackets. The logo shows two runners, connected with a ribbon, in combination with the name ‘Running Blind’. Some buddies have added the word ‘buddy’ to their shirt. Visually impaired judokas have a red dot printed on one sleeve. The Ski Association has yellow tabards printed with three dots in the shape of an inverted trangle. They also have tabards for companions/guides; these are printed with an exclamation mark in an upright trangle. It’s interesting to note that these ski tabards and in fact any kind of safety vest, with or without a printed message, are often used outside the slopes for outdoor activities, simply because there are no alternatives.
Ask yourself, ‘Would you want to go cycling on a hot summer day wearing a thick ski tabard?’

Visual representation of a handicap

Worldwide there are interesting developments for graphically communicating a disabilty. Perhaps this has to do with more awareness or new laws and regulations or maybe there is a need for more contemporary solutions. An interesting example is the metamorphosis of the international accessibility symbol by a group of ‘design activists’ from Boston, as part of ‘The Accessible Icon Project’. A rather controversial project, but thanks to this project there is renewed attention for people with disabilities and accessibility issues.

I know through contacts here and abroad that there is increasing interest in when and how a visual impairment can be communicated. Some time ago the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘In Touch’ dedicated an episode to, ‘Symbols to say you are partially sighted’. This was mainly concerned with (very) low vision in everyday situations, such as traveling by public transport or shopping.

Request: share your experiences, ideas and opinions!

The safety of people with a visual disability during recreational activities or sports can be improved by making the disabilty visible to others. In the current situation various accessories and clothing are being used. However, these are limited, not always effective and can sometimes be experienced as stigmatizing. I’d like to ask you, on behalf of the project group, to share your experiences and ideas. This will provide us with valuable information which can be used for research and development.
The following questions relate to situations in which you do not use, for example, a white cane or guide dog.

How do you make your visual impairment visible to others during sports or recreation?

  • Are you (or your buddy) currently using something, for instance a safety vest? If so, what do you use? Is there something printed/written on it, for instance a symbol or a text?
  • What are your experiences, negative and/or positive?
  • Are there any symbols/words/accessories that you find stigmatizing?
  • Do you think it is important that a distinction is made between blind/visually impaired?
  • Are you willing to participate in a survey?
  • Please email your comments to

Thank you!