Middlesbrough tennis champion says the sport ‘changed her life’ as calls continue for visually impaired support

Video report by Andrew Misra

Social distancing means that wherever you go these days, arrows on the floor and visual signals to keep apart from others are commonplace. 

However, for many blind and partially sighted people, these measures make our new world almost impossible to navigate.

Indeed, two-thirds of blind and visually impaired people say they feel less independent now than they did before lockdown, according to a survey by the Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB).

Rosie Pybus is a visually impaired tennis champion from Middlesbrough.

The 28-year-old is backing the charity’s calls for the sports and leisure sector to support those with sight loss during the pandemic.

Pybus has won medals competing internationally for Great Britain Credit: Rosie Pybus

Pybus has been playing visually impaired tennis for a decade and says the sport has played a key role in her life.

Rosie was born with a vision condition called nystagmus in which the eyes make repetitive, uncontrolled movements.

 She said: “I've got a decent level of vision still, but sometimes I've said 'look at that cute dog' and it's been a suitcase or I've apologised to a lamppost or something like that as I've walked past it and brushed by it."

In visually impaired tennis, players are classified according to their visual ability, ranging from B1 (totally blind) to B5.

The sport is adapted to a smaller court, about three quarters of the size of a standard tennis court. An audible ball is used so players can hear it bounce. The larger, lighter foam ball has ball bearings in it, so it makes a rattling noise when hit.

Depending on an individuals’ sight level they may have up to three bounces of the ball before they must return it back to their opponent. The more sight you have, the fewer bounces you are allowed. 

That means Rosie, who is classed as B4, can hit with people like Frankie Rohan, who is classed as B2, having lost a lot of her vision in 2015.

Frankie said: “It's been absolutely fantastic because when I first experienced sight loss I honestly didn't think I'd play any sport at all, because I had no experience of blind or partially sighted groups or knew anybody who was blind or partially sighted. 

In recent years, the North East has become a thriving hub for blind and visually impaired tennis clubs and regional Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) tournaments. 

It is not just in Middlesbrough where Rosie plays either, she has been all around the world competing for Great Britain. 

This year, however, has been rather different. 

The fourth International Blind Tennis Tournament was scheduled to be in Italy in June, but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

 A multiple National championships medallist, Rosie made her international debut in 2018 in Dublin, where she won a gold medal before adding a silver medal a year later at the 2019 event in Benidorm, Spain. 

Rosie at the 2019 International Blind Tennis Tournament

Rosie was away from the court for eleven weeks between March and May, at the height of the pandemic.

The coronavirus crisis has brought with it a multitude of challenges for people with sight loss.

 Rosie said: “A lot of us might live on our own so for example we can't just hop in our cars and drive to pick up groceries or drive to an outdoor tennis court and play. A lot of the opportunities we do access we do have to travel further for."

 Current estimates from the RNIB suggest that there are almost 15,000 people registered blind or visually impaired in the North East alone. But it is thought there are more than six times that number living with sight loss in the region.  That figure is expected to rise by 19% by 2030.

Marc Powell is the Strategic Accessibility Lead for the RNIB, and a former Paralympian. He represented Great Britain at the 2012 London Paralympic Games.

Powell is concerned about the challenges that people with sight loss are facing, even as lockdown restrictions continue to ease.

He said: “There's so many different changes out there that we're all adapting to right now and a lot of those changes are visual. 

“Blind and partially sighted people rely on that level of communication."