A Multi-Sensory Experience: Creating a Level Playing Field for Disabled People

The term 'multi-sensory' is thrown around a lot these days, especially by over-enthusiastic marketers who seem keen to convince us that their latest range of crisps or ice cream bars offer more than a calorific treat.

The term 'multi-sensory' is thrown around a lot these days, especially by over-enthusiastic marketers who seem keen to convince us that their latest range of crisps or ice cream bars offer more than a calorific treat.

But the concept is far more powerful than that; providing the ability to create an inclusive and level playing field for people with disabilities.

The point was proven at this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show where RNIB hosted a 'multi-sensory' garden in partnership with residential property developers Countryside.

Our 'Mind's Eye Garden', named after the human ability to visualise images without the need for sight, successfully met a very demanding brief. We wanted our garden to be inspired by and reflect the varied experiences of sight loss in order to demonstrate to sighted visitors what it might be like to go blind.

Not only that, but it was absolutely imperative to us that the garden could be enjoyed equally by people who are blind and partially sighted, as well as those who can see.

Our talented young designers, Alex Frazier and Tom Prince of LDC, rose to the challenge and used a stunning variety of textures, sounds, tastes and smells to stimulate all the senses. The semi-walled garden was inspired by an Islamic paradise garden with structures and patterns evolved from constructivist architecture and the artwork of Ben Nicholson and Piet Mondrian. The result was a series of contrasting sensory experiences and a unified composition which provided a rich oasis away from the chaos of the outside world.

The garden was lauded by both judges and members of the public, being awarded gold as well as the 'Best Fresh Garden' and 'People's Choice' awards.

More importantly though, were the reactions from visitors who, whether they could see or not, took obvious pleasure in the garden and went away with a deeper and more meaningful understanding of inclusivity.

Blind and partially sighted people were able to experience the rich variety of aromas from plants carefully chosen for their complementary fragrances whilst contrasting colours, shapes and textures allowed them to appreciate the overall look and feel of the planted areas.

The glass cube centrepiece which was obscured by cascading water offered a blurred vision of the garden and a new perspective for people who can see, whilst the brightly coloured glass panels offered yet another outlook.

Senses help us create new memories, and smell and sound in particular can be extremely effective in evoking emotional responses. The brain is a wonderful thing and does a remarkable job of using sensory triggers to paint a picture.

One of our blind visitors 'remembered' the colour yellow after touring the garden whilst one lady burst into tears on realising what life must be like for her husband, who is partially sighted.

Why should someone who cannot see be limited in the way they experience life, and the enjoyment they get from it?

Elements from the garden will now be used within a sensory trail in the communal gardens of our redeveloped community living facility in Redhill , Surrey. The ambitious redevelopment, in partnership with Countryside, will produce a model for integrated supported living, the first of its kind in the UK, where properties for RNIB residents will be built amongst houses available for private sale. The initiative will provide an integrated and vibrant community with a wide range of community facilities which are open to everyone to enjoy.

In a growing and ageing population, cases of sight loss are going to increase. In the UK, there are expected to be around four million people who will be blind or partially sighted by 2050. The Redhill redevelopment, and our Mind's Eye Garden, symbolise RNIB's ambitions for a fully inclusive society, one in which blind and partially sighted people can live their life independently.

You can find out more about the Mind's Eye Garden at www.rnib.org.uk/chelsea14