Defying the Darkness – how one LCL Bike Ride participant is still cycling despite her sight loss

For all kinds of reasons, cycling is a wonderful hobby far beyond just getting from one place to another. Whether it’s the sense of achievement it provides, a tremendous way to exercise that is easy on the body or a great way to experience beautiful scenery, cycling has become ever more popular in recent years; especially during these last 12 months.

For one cyclist to reap the benefits provided by cycling requires complete trust in another cyclist on the same bike who also describes the scenery around them. This is because this cyclist, Corinna Swift, is severely sight impaired (blind) and will be cycling on her tandem bike, with her husband, Alan.

Corinna will be participating in this year’s Liverpool Chester Liverpool (LCL) Bike Ride to Corinna Swift, ELCO, St Paul's Eye Unit raise money for a charity close to her heart, St Paul’s Research Foundation.  The charity is based at the internationally renowned St Paul’s Eye Unit in Liverpool and is renowned for its ground-breaking treatment and research into eye disease.

Corinna has been cycling all her life - at first on her own bike as a young girl, but as her sight deteriorated over the years the road became too dangerous and so Corinna and Alan invested in their own tandem 13 years ago, and called it Ted – Together Every Day.

Corinna explained: “It was important to me to name my tandem and personalise it. Ted is so important to me to be able to get out and about and do things fully-sighted people can do. Why should sight-loss define who I am!?

“When we got the tandem we had to have lessons because it is not as simple as just getting on and peddling. If you have been a passenger on the back of a motorbike you will know all too well about the importance of balance and may remember how nervous you were on the first time as a ‘pillion’ rider. Well, that is just a small part of it. For instance, as a cyclist you know that when you brake to stop you get your foot ready to put on the floor; well as a passenger on the tandem, or the ‘stoker’ as we are called, you never take your feet off the peddles otherwise the bike becomes unstable and it’s easy to topple the bike over and it hurts – they aren’t the lightest of things.  It is only the sighted person on the front, called the ‘pilot’ that puts their foot on the floor. It’s quite unnerving at first.           

“The other tasks the ‘pilot’ has to do is to warn the blind cyclists of hazards, like low hanging branches and turns in the road coming up.  Also, it makes the trip all the more enjoyable for the ‘stoker’ if the ‘pilot’ describes what the scenery is like around them, otherwise the blind person at the back just rides wondering what is happening and soon gets bored – plus we need a distraction if our legs get tired.”

Corinna has worked at St Paul’s Eye Unit for the last 7 years, but has been a patient of St Paul’s since she was 3 years old – 53 years ago.

“I have always had poor vision and was always being admitted to St Paul’s. My sight has got progressively worse and now I am registered severely sight impaired (blind). Some people think that you either have sight or you don’t, but there is a whole range in-betweenCorinna, at the 2018 LCL Bike Ride from needing glasses to having no sight at all. For me, I have no peripheral vision in both eyes and what central vision I have in the left eye is very poor.  The right eye is what we call a non-seeing eye, so unless a person is close by in front of me and preferably on the left I can’t see them.”

When asked about her association with St Paul’s, Corinna recalled, “I used to hate being different when I was a young girl; especially as back then blind people where sent to a special school (St Vincent’s Blind School in West Derby) and I just wanted to mix with all the other girls my age in my road.

“I remember on one occasion being admitted into St Paul’s at 13 years old for the umpteen time and I was really upset.  I remember clearly a young Chinese doctor came to me, sat on my bed, held my hand and said ‘Don’t cry!’ He gave me so much comfort.  That young doctor was called David Wong, who became a Professor and a world-leading expert in his field. He also became my consultant until he retired a few years ago – that was a very upsetting day, I can tell you; especially when, at the end of his final clinic, all the staff lined up and applauded him out of clinic.  He stopped and said to me, ‘Don’t cry!’  

“I feel very privileged to be working at St Paul’s Eye Unit now as the Eye Clinic Liaison Officer. I use my experiences as the person that helps those that unfortunately lose their sight to make a smooth transition into being able to live their life independently despite their sight-loss.  I feel very fortunate to be able to work at St Paul’s and to be able to use my experience and knowledge to help others but to also be amongst a fantastic group of people that work in St Paul’s – it’s like a family. I think we are incredibly fortunate in the North-West to be able to attract so many experts in their field to work in Liverpool from around the world so that they can share ideas about new ways to tackle blindness.  The place also has that additional quality of being a place where patients come for the first time feel safe and know that everything possible is being done to help them.”

When asked if Corinna is looking forward to the LCL Bike Ride, Corinna replied: “Oh yes.  I have done it before. The atmosphere is brilliant. Cyclists always have this natural ability to support each other.  It’s never about how fast or how far you ride it’s just about the turning up.  I always meet so many interesting people.  We take our time and make the most of the day. In fact I love it when people chat to us and ask questions. Not being able to see very well, it isn’t easy for me to walk up to others and start a conversation, but love it when people say ‘hi’ and ask about the bike and cycling.  I think it is so important to raise the awareness of sight-loss because all too often sight-loss is not a visible disability - in fact, it is a hidden disability.”

Corinna is keen to point out that there is a lot of blind people that would love to try out cycling but there is a shortage of people coming forward to be ‘pilots’ or don’t know what it entails. “If anyone would like to discuss what it’s like to be a ‘pilot’, how they can volunteer to help others, or if you are registered partially-sighted or blind and what to know more, then call me.”   

“If you are doing the bike ride but haven’t chosen a charity yet, then please do it for StCorinna winning RNIB Professional of the Year 2017 Paul’s Research Foundation. It is a fabulous charity that makes a huge difference to people affected by sight loss here and its ground-breaking work also benefits people around the world. If you want to do the bike ride but unsure what it would be like, sign up and do it with us!  We just take our time and have a lovely day with like-minded people. And if you want to sponsor me you can do it via my Just Giving page by clicking here.”

Corinna has won national and local awards for her work, including the RNIB Professional of the Year and the Bayer Ophthalmology Award.