Eyesight charity presents produce as a feast for the senses

Seeability James with volunteer Sue - cookery class

Seeability believes food preparation and cooking are vital life skills for all

Seeability Laura learning to cut food safely
Following simple or complex recipes teaches and encourages those with sight difficulties to learn routines, processes and orientation

The enjoyment of freshly prepared food is a pleasure that everyone should experience regardless of their abilities, and that’s exactly the mission of one charity dedicated to changing the lives of those with sight disabilities through food. Produce Business UK finds out more from Seeability

The simple act of peeling a potato or making a plate of scrambled eggs is for many a challenge that can only be overcome with the help of patient and enthusiastic trained professionals.

For people with sight and physical or learning disabilities the joy of preparing and enjoying a meal is often tempered by the struggle to master basic cooking skills. This is where the charity SeeAbility offers a vital lifeline; helping those with lifelong sight loss and additional learning disabilities to achieve independence when it comes to their diet.

“Food preparation and cooking is a vital life skill,” says SeeAbility’s head of advisory services, Martin Thomas.

“All five senses are stimulated by the cooking process, and whether someone is actively involved in preparing a complete meal or is simply present whilst someone else cooks for them, the smell, sound, touch, taste and, however limited, sight [of the food] all arouses the taste buds, creates an interest in the world around them, and increases the pleasure a person can have from the food being shared and eaten.”

Thomas explains that many blind people benefit from cooking as it teaches skills such as stirring, pouring, cutting, ripping and tearing.

“Sampling tastes, from herbs to spices and from savoury to bitter, all help individuals take an interest in food and can generate an interest that can be shared with others. Experiencing food from other cultures (Chinese, Indian, Mexican) helps those with lifelong disabilities experience elements of other cultures too,” he continues.

“Following simple or complex recipes teaches and encourages people to learn routines, processes and orientation. To have food preparation skills increase the choice and autonomy of people with sight loss and complex disabilities. From being able to make a sandwich or microwave a simple meal, people can acquire an independent skill, and one they can share and undertake for others.

“Not to be able to participate in food production maintains dependency – being able to locate fruit, salad or make the most basic of meals or snacks increases independence and reduces dependency.”

Thomas adds that SeeAbility is committed to making sure food preparation is an inclusive activity no matter what cooking ability a person may have. The Royal National Institute of Blind People estimates that there are two million people in the UK suffering from sight loss, from complete blindness to partial sight. Studies have shown that those suffering sight losses are more prone to a lack of well being, especially if there are other issues such as learning disabilities.

SeeAbility believes that engaging with food preparation not only helps to widen people’s life experiences, but can also help to boost confidence, especially for those who lose their sight as they age.

“For people who lose their sight in later life, food preparation can be a skill that needs re-teaching to ensure the person can maintain their skills and cook with confidence,” says Thomas.

“All visually impaired people can access the support of Rehabilitation Officers of the Visually Impaired (ROVI) who are trained to support the visually impaired to maintain and develop self help skills and daily living skills. ROVIs are trained to teach people to use adapted equipment such as cutting aids, pouring aids, liquid level indicators, tactile markers for ovens, talking microwaves and talking scales.

“Cooking is about sharing, which is a great thing to do; that’s why we encourage people to not just cook for themselves but for others too.”

Thomas gives examples of where engaging with cooking has led to an increase in independence, appetite and also enjoyment of food such as one group of young people with sight loss and learning disabilities.

“Many of them showed little interest or enjoyment in meal times,” says Thomas.

“At that time food was prepared in a canteen and the young people had little exposure or opportunity to be involved in food prep. Once the rehab worker had developed a kitchen the young people’s appetites were noticeably improved, and their subsequent health, because the smells and sounds of food preparation were close to them. They could anticipate and be curious about their forthcoming meal in a manner they couldn’t when they were dislocated from food prep made in a canteen.

“Another of our rehab workers spent many weeks teaching a woman in her late fifties with sight loss and several learning disabilities to make scrambled eggs. There were many times when her support staff felt that she might never achieve an edible meal of scrambled eggs. However, with perseverance and determination from all concerned the woman is able to make her scrambled eggs and she does so with great pride.”

There is also a very real issue with food safety that the team at SeeAbility is currently tackling. Often people with multiple disabilities have problems with swallowing and digestion, a condition called dysphagia, and this poses a risk of choking or bringing food back up.

This requires a specialist diet that might consist of pureed food or soft food being prepared.

“As you’ll imagine it is important pureed or mashed food, whilst not only being safe to swallow, is well presented and tasty,” continues Thomas.

“SeeAbility is leading the way in encouraging interesting, innovative and safe foods for people with dysphagia.”

The charity marches forward thanks to an army of volunteers, but there are many ways in which the fresh produce industry could help, says Thomas, including gifts of food or equipment.

For many, the task of rustling up some lunch or throwing together a light supper is done so without much thought, yet for others it’s an achievement born out of determination, and the support of charities such as SeeAbility.

Anyone wishing to contact SeeAbility should email Anna Croghan.

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