As a child, Sarah Bryan saw her vocation as improving the health of other people. But one thing stood in her way - Sarah was born blind.
She found a way, though; Sarah, who lives in Hillsborough with her husband, is an expert holistic, sports and remedial masseur and an aromatherapist with her own business, SB Holistic.
Q. IS it true that blindness heightens other senses, or is that a myth?
A. Our other senses are not actually better, but we are more reliant on them, so better tuned in to them. My hearing is actually at the bottom end of the normal range, yet I noticed immediately when a small item fell out of my friend’s shopping trolley, which he would otherwise have lost without noticing.
Q. So is your sense of touch exactly the same as a sighted therapist’s? And when you mix your aromatherapy oils, is our sense of smell no different either?
A. My senses of touch and smell are very good, but they probably would be even if I could see. They are good tools well-used. My smell has been honed from childhood, when I used to recognise people by their perfume and friends gave me their empty perfume bottles.
Q. Are there other benefits that your lack of sight brings to the treatment?
A. Clients are very much at ease about getting undressed in front of me! They often laugh when I offer to leave the room for the sake of privacy. My life is quite challenging because of my blindness and some mental health issues too, which means I can empathise with clients who are having a physically or emotionally tough time.
Q. Why did you want to become a therapist?
A. Long story! I always wanted to do something medical, to help people. My mother was a nurse. But I had to find a job I could do without sight. Sadly, medicine, nursing or midwifery were not to be. I was interested in complementary medicine, but again, there were visual stumbling blocks. I studied for two years in speech and language therapy before the sight issues got in the way again. I then completed a Ph.D and became a doctor, planning an academic career in speech sciences. But I was very reliant on support workers. So I turned to massage therapy and aromatherapy and I’m very happy.
Q. What do you enjoy most about your work?
A. Seeing the difference it makes to people’s lives. It’s lovely to see someone regain the movement of their shoulder, or to hear that they are in less pain, feel relaxed or have slept well for the first time in ages. I actually feel quite meditative when I massage, although it’s also energising physical work.
Q. Do you think most people undervalue the benefits, both physical and mental, that massage brings?
A. I think many don’t really know what massage is and how it can help them. There are also the unsavoury connotations of massage, which are all too obvious if you Google ‘Massage Sheffield’. Also our society is not a “touchy-feely” culture, so people can feel self-conscious about professional touch.
Q. You are also an aromatherapist. Doubters think the only benefit of plant and flower oils is that they smell nice. Is that true?
A. The nice smell is really important, but it isn’t the whole story. Smells are closely associated with past memories. So if the smell of a rose pleasantly reminds an anxious client of their mother’s perfume, then it alone may calm the body and brain. The converse is unfortunately true for smells with negative associations. However, there is so much more to it than smell. The natural chemicals in essential oils interact with our physiology and chemistry. Fennel and clary-sage contain oestrogen-like substances and can help women with menstrual and menopausal problems. Thyme, tea tree and lavender are fantastic antiseptics.
Q. Where do you practise and how do you get there?
A. I work at three venues: Woodland Holistics on Campo Lane, the Hillsborough Foot, Knee and Back Clinic and the Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind on Mappin Street. Hillsborough is a ten-minute walk from my home and I take the tram to the other locations. I currently travel with my guide dog, Quanda, but she is sadly soon to retire and I must wait until another suitable dog becomes available.
Q. What will life be like for you when Quanda goes?
A. Having a dog means blissfully breezing along without walking into people. It also means having a waggy tail around the house and constant free entertainment. However, it also means early morning and night-time wake-up calls, a hairy house, impromptu trips to the vets and a lot of forward-planning if we want to visit friends or go on holiday. It’s a bit like having a child.
So while I shall have to adjust to using a white cane again after many years of working with a dog, we plan to take full advantage of our freedom and visit family and friends.
Q. Do you wish there was more support for the Guide Dogs For the Blind charity?
A. I think we all do. People donate very generously, but I don’t think anyone realises how expensive a business it is to train and provide for a guide dog: around £50,000 from puppyhood throughout its working life and £50m for the annual running cost of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association.
Q. Can you tell us about your blindness?
A. I’ve never had sight, so I don’t miss it. However, sighted people can do things much more quickly, easily and efficiently than me, which can make me feel incompetent. I have to put a lot more forethought into things to make them possible. Working at a new location means several hours of orientation training, to teach me how to get there and back safely. Reading a document sent in the post means either requesting a braille or electronic copy (sometimes a real battle) or having someone read it for me - not always possible or appropriate. It can be very frustrating and exhausting at times.
Q. What are the things you most wish you could see?
A. I don’t wish I could see things, as I’ve come to appreciate the world through my other senses. However, I do wish I could see to do practical tasks, which are so easy for sighted people: writing and posting a letter; cleaning without missing bits; finding small objects which have dropped and rolled under the furniture; finding my way around new places quickly and without help...
Q. Are there things that it has prevented you from doing in life?
A. It prevented me from qualifying as a speech therapist – heart-breaking after so much hard work. I also wish I could drive sometimes, but perhaps I’m not missing much, given the complexity of Sheffield’s one-way system!
Q. What can sighted people do to make life easier for the non or partially sighted?
A. Please treat us normally. Offers of assistance are appreciated, but please ask, don’t assume. If a blind person needs help to cross the road, please offer your arm, don’t grab theirs. However well-meant, it can actually feel very intrusive. Finally, I know guide dogs are cute, but they are working dogs and petting or talking to them can jeopardise the owner’s safety. So please, please ask permission first.