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Stairs and visual perception

I’ve a long and eventful history of negotiating steps and stairs. One of my earliest memories is of the world revolving as a fell backwards down the stairs in our family home at the age of two. That was broken nose number one!

Fast forward to adulthood, and failure to pull up my trousers properly resulted in a fast slide down my stairs as a new homeowner. Nose intact, but pride somewhat damaged. More recently I wrote about the sensation of stomach rising rapidly to mouth as I missed steps when running in lockdown.

What prompted me to write however was the impact wearing a face mask had on my ability to walk down a set of steps into Victoria Station. I have a weird macula condition which means I lack central vision – no detail – and I need to look sideways at everything. Two steps down and for the first time in my life I felt the impact of vertigo. The steps appeared to slide away into nothingness. Weird. Then logic kicked in the mask is blocking a useful part of my vision. Then I think: whose idea to install silver stairs across the TFL network anyway?

Thoughts on successful stair navigation

It’s natural to be a little scared of stairs when you have sight loss. For most people, going up is less frightening than coming down. More than one sight condition can result in stairs looking like a slide as you stand at the top.

Good lighting and contrasting step edges can allow better depth perception. Get advice before painting step edges as some paints can become slippery and beware the use of sticky tape to highlight step edges. You can’t beat a good handrail and if it contrasts so you can see to find it all the better.

In modern buildings and environments handrails should extend above and below the flight of steps to denote top and bottom. To touch or not in COVID times? TFL and transport providers are working hard to ensure all handrails are regularly sanitised. Some people with sight loss are opting for gloves. Some disposable others washable on return home.

Stair climbing for fitness

Back to the stairs. If you are physically fit then walking up and down stairs in a usual gait and rhythm is by far the best way. You might like to find the top or bottom step with your foot before you begin. Don’t forget the handrail! In Tai Chi and martial arts students are taught a to foster a connection with the ground and the same is true in mindfulness and yoga. Try feeling the connection between foot and step as you descend. Think about putting your weight through each step when descending or ascending.

If someone is guiding you towards stairs – make sure they tell you which way the stairs are going, up or down! Obvious, but people do forget. A little information about the steps can be useful, such as whether they’ve got backs or are open. Encourage the guide to pause briefly at the top and bottom to indicate you’ve reached the end of the stairs. It also works well if the guide allows you to walk next to the stair rail.

Mobility aids and stairs

Canes and walking sticks also have their place when negotiating steps with little or no vision. If you are finding you need to rely on your cane or walking stick to determine the depth of steps then it’s worth chatting to a mobility specialist. You need the right tool for the job. There are techniques for detecting stairs up and down and identifying top and bottom. A long cane will allow you to detect the corduroy tactile paving 50cm from the top or bottom of stairs. Long canes are particularly good for detecting the odd step or unexpected kerb.

If you have physical difficulties with walking, Zimmer frames, trollies and other walking aids can help you detect steps and stairs but get some advice on the best aid to meet your need. You can paint your frame white to let people know you have difficulty seeing or attach labels or badges denoting sight loss. Walking sticks need to be measured to meet your need so if you are looking to use a white walking stick then get advice from your rehab worker.

You can find you rehab worker by taking a look at RNIB’s sightline directory

Please get in touch if you have questions regarding stairs, steps or moving around with sight loss. You can contact London Vision on or 0203 761 3651.

Written by Jonathan Ward, London Vision Development Manager


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