Outside a cafe in Llandudno town centre, Alex Sansome from Caernarfon waits, bucket in hand, for passers-by to contribute to his charity. As the president of the Disabled Sailors Society, he’s been following this routine, over 20 hours per week, in towns across North Wales for seven years.
Despite his experience, Alex doesn’t seek out donors. He doesn’t make eye contact, because he can’t. At 70 years old, Alex has been completely blind for 27 years, living with only light-and-dark perception.
From an early age, Alex struggled with seeing in the dark. He was barely able to function at night, and had difficulty even finding objects under the table.
At 17 years old, Alex was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmitosa (RP). Those who experience this form of blindness suffer from gradually narrowing tunnel vision, before losing their sight completely.
Even after his diagnosis, Alex was reluctant to disclose his disability for fear of being taken advantage of. Conversely, he struggled with the idea of living with a ‘hidden disability.’
“It’s an awful condition, RP, because you don’t look blind either. Well, I probably do now.”
Alex chuckles, and motions to his face. His distant gaze, along with his seeing-eye dog Bruno, are strong indicators of his condition, which progressed to complete blindness by the time he was 43 years old.
‘I see it as a challenge’
Alex’s RP hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his interests, especially his love of the ocean. He’s a certified sailor, with particular experience in exploring the east Caribbean islands. Even at his age, Alex remains active:
“I like it when sailing gets a bit lumpy. When the wind gets up, your yacht cruiser is bouncing all over the place, and you have to keep adjusting the sails,” he says.
“Most people don’t like bad weather when they’re sailing, but I enjoy it. I see it as a challenge, you know?”
Alex wants to be able to have something to do, always; his attitude extends to his preference for yachts over tall ships, but also to his dedication to charity work. Alex has been raising money for his own charity for seven years, but has been working with charitable organisations for the past 17 years.
Some of the charities Alex has been involved in specialise in allowing the disabled to sail, including the Jubilee Sailing Trust and the Vision Impaired Sailing Society.
He says that while these charities are good for disabled people, particularly wheelchair users, the role of blind sailors was too passive for his tastes.
“The blind people are mainly passengers. They don’t do a lot. So I thought, I’ll get a yacht and I’ll take blind people sailing—actually teach them to sail, instead of just sitting there.”
Alex’s idea for founding the Disabled Sailor Society came after his relationship with the Jubilee Sailing trust became strained. He tells me about one incident that caused him to feel alienated:
“On the passageway into the mess, there’s a table in front of you and, just to the side of it there’s a metal pole sticking up,” he says.
“I heard a blind girl, bless her, walk straight into this pole. I thought they could at least pad the pole, like they do with scaffolding. I made a few suggestions, but they ignored them, really.”
Alex left the Jubilee Sailing Trust and formed the Disabled Sailors Society with two friends. While the others take care of the accounting, Alex is the more active member, collecting funds over six hours for four days per week on average.
‘They can sail whenever they like’
Alex describes how the resources of the Disabled Sailors Society grant more freedom to prospective sailors.
“This boat will be at their disposal, they can sail whenever they like instead of waiting for other people to volunteer their boats…”
In the middle of his explanation, Alex cuts himself off: “Thanks, would you like a sticker?”
His response to donors had punctuated our conversation up to this point, but this instance was a false flag; he had mistaken his rustling bucket for another contributor. Alex resumes his description.
He talks about the resources, such as flares and life jackets, that the charity is funding. He’s aiming to get sponsorship for a second boat, and ultimately hopes to amass a flotilla.
‘Simple coping mechanisms’
Alex will be starting to teach disabled people to sail in June, although he’s currently only licensed to teach with sighted supervision. Though his lessons are open to all, Alex explains that his own experience allows him to best understand how blind people learn.
“There are simple coping mechanisms that blind people use, whereas sighted people wouldn’t think to train people like that,” he says.
“They might tell a blind person, ‘here’s a seat’, whereas a blind person would tap the seat to give an audio clue, so the blind person comes up and knows where the seat is.”
In June, Alex will be travelling around the UK, giving the disabled free access to the charity’s boat, and providing lessons. He even has goals to sail to America to give motivational talks.
“I think my desire to do charity work is linked to my condition”, he muses. “It’s helped me to be more aware—not just of blind people, but all kinds of disabilities, hidden or not.”
Alex slips on his gloves and grips his bucket. He may seem to passers-by as a stationary figure, but in his retirement, he’s as active as ever. His blindness belies his vision of a world that takes better care of the disabled—and allows them to take care of each other.