When Ruud lost his sight many years ago, he learned to adapt through mobility training to use his other senses. But it was only when he tried 'barefoot' shoe technology that he realised how useful it could be for blind and partially sighted people.
By Ruud Bemelmans
I've been aware of the barefoot movement for a few years now, but had some personal doubts about whether it was for me as I have a history of foot-related issues; mainly flat feet and weak ankles. In early January I was reminded of it and I decided I was going to buy myself a pair of barefoot shoes. The shoes got delivered and during my first few steps I knew that this was going to be a choice that was going to change far more than I had been expecting.
Barefoot shoes are shoes that allow your feet to behave naturally, as if you were walking barefoot, while offering protection from sharp or rough objects and excessive heat or cold. This means your feet are flat on the ground and with room for your toes to splay and flex. There's no support or cushioning, based on the principal that evolution over several hundred thousand years has provided us with feet that are more than capable of supporting us through all our activities. Let us consider the facts: a single foot has 28 bones, hundreds of muscles and over 200,000 nerve endings on the bottom of the sole. These biomechanical wonders are, by their very nature strong, agile and capable of sending our brain a lot of information about what we're standing, walking or running on. According to science an astonishing 70% of all the information we receive about our direct environment comes from the feet.
Nearly two decades ago, when starting my mobility training after complete sight loss I was instructed to use all sensory feedback available to me, including the feet, however since transitioning to barefoot shoes this has taken on a whole new meaning. One of the first times I went out for a walk down local back roads I stopped to conduct a quick experiment: how many small loose pebbles can I feel underfoot? The answer was 4 under the right foot and 2 under the left. Being able to suddenly feel the surface detail under my feet with that much clarity I was incredibly surprised at how obvious indicator tiles became when I commuted to London in my barefoot shoes for the first time. By the way, that day started off at -3 and didn't get any warmer than -1, yet my feet stayed comfortably warm throughout. Being able to feel these tiles so much more easily means that I can react quickly to them with more fluidity of movement and increased confidence on standard routes. I have, as a result now probably shaved a minute or three off my walk from the tube station to university, central London traffic permitting of course.
This fluidity has also transferred over to stairs and escalators. When going down stairs I use my toes to feel the edges of the steps, which helps in going down them more confidently. When getting on escalators I had to do a quick shuffle to adjust my feet to stand squarely on a step as they unfolded, but now I can feel the thin divide between the individual steps, which means I can adjust my positioning as soon as I step on. These improvements have contributed to a far less energy draining commute.
The increased ground feel in barefoot shoes has helped me react more quickly to uneven surfaces, however it helps me balance more easily too. This wasn't as apparent to me until I was standing in a Metropolitan line train, swaying and bouncing while racing from station to station, and realised that I was standing far more securely than when wearing my old hiking boots. Remember, in barefoot shoes the feet are flat on the ground, with the heel and toes at the same level, which also happens to be the same level as the floor, bar a few millimetres of material in between. When the floor moves, so do the feet and the body reacts pretty much instantly to maintain balance. When I'm standing on the tube nowadays I'm holding poles far less tightly or can even lean casually against the side without any worries about losing my balance.
There is a slight drawback though. Most of us have weak and inflexible feet; unused to dealing with the outside world without the additional support offered by conventional shoes. In order to switch over to barefoot shoes a transition period is necessary; some websites advise taking two months, unless you're used to walking barefoot most of the time already, which was the case for me. Even so my feet and legs have become stronger and more flexible when walking indoors and in the garden, where surfaces are by and large smooth and level and distances are short is much less taxing than going out and about barefoot. My toes have started to splay and the arches on my feet have definitely become more pronounced. I don't expect I'll be wearing anything but barefoot shoes now, to not only let my feet be feet in the most natural way possible, yet protected from environmental hazards, but to also keep the mobility benefits I've discussed here.
One thing that I didn't have when I switched to barefoot shoes was someone to give me personal advice about transitioning or what to be aware of when doing so, which resulted in me spending many hours researching the differences between shod and barefoot walking and running, the different gait patterns we can use in various situations, etc. I would like to offer my time to help any of you interested in going barefoot and hopefully in so doing ensure that you will become a successful blind or visually impaired barefoot walker too. For this I can be reached via email [email protected], but please keep in mind that I'm answering your questions voluntarily and depending on time may not be able to respond as quickly as I would like.
After some research I settled on the brand VivoBarefoot; a London-based company that offers a variety of barefoot shoes for many different situations. However I, nor RNIB is affiliated with VivoBarefoot, nor am I sponsored to mention the brand as an endorsement of their products. The mobility benefits of walking in barefoot shoes as discussed in this article should by all means be similar regardless of brand. However, VivoBarefoot have generously offered 20 percent off a purchase online only for RNIB Connect members, using the code RNIB20.
Thanks for reading.