September 14, 2016

Behind the Scenes with Irene Ding: Running with Visually Impaired Adults

Irene Ding with a visually impaired runner

Irene Ding with a visually impaired runner

Irene Ding, a vice president in Corporate Trust in Hong Kong, never thought of herself as a runner. That changed five years ago when she began volunteering as a guide runner with visually impaired adults. She shared her story with “Behind the Scenes” recently.

How long have you been with BNY Mellon, and what is your role?

I’ve been with the company for seven years – I joined in 2007, departed in 2011, and then returned in 2013. I’m a senior client service manager in Corporate Trust in Hong Kong. Our business provides agency and trustee services to bond issuers in North Asia, and I take care of a portfolio of clients. We administer the bond activities – such as interest payments, redemption, corporate actions, and restructuring and handle daily queries from customers – as well as any new business needs that may arise.

I hear you’re active with a running club.

The funny thing is I never thought of myself as a runner. I always liked swimming, dancing, badminton, and hiking. I have a friend who is a volunteer with Blind Sports Hong Kong, and she reached out to me five years ago when they needed guides to volunteer with visually impaired runners.

My first reaction was, “I don’t run!” But she pointed out that I like hiking and other sports, and said I should have the energy for running. My friend knew that volunteering is an important part of my life. I’ve arranged and joined some voluntary services for autistic children, the elderly and blind children. I try to give what I can to serve my community. It’s a blessing to me that I can contribute a part of myself to others.

I joined a Tuesday night team and started with guide walking first. Initially I would walk or run 3 km (1.86 miles), but now I regularly run 10 km (6.2 miles.)

What techniques do you use to run with a blind person?

The visually impaired runner will stand on my right, and we hold a short rope together – that’s the connection between us. We use the rope to guide the runner. We have to coordinate with each other – I have to notice the pace and condition of the runner. I need to be aware if he or she feels tired, needs rest or water, and I need to observe her breath; I can’t be too fast or too slow. I have to be in sync with his or her pace, and stay just half a step ahead. We keep talking with each other and it's a good sign if we are running out of breath and is a good way to build up our energy.

Most visually impaired runners haven’t done any sports because of their impairment. Some have mobility limitations because they’ve had limited exercise. I had one partner who was very weak in her legs and we had to go step by step to build up her leg muscles. Some are reasonably fit, but haven’t attempted a sport.

The runners vary widely in age, ranging from 18 to around 70. The average is 40 to 50, and they are about evenly split between men and women. Some were born visually impaired, while others lost their sight due to sickness or accidents.

The objective of the program is to help people with visual impairments to exercise safely, and to do that we must build trust. We have to give specific descriptions when we are on the move. They need to know the direction, the condition of the path we’re running on, who is ahead of us, and whether any obstacles or course changes lie ahead. New runners particularly want to know how many laps we have completed and how long and how far we have run. As they get more comfortable, there’s more time to talk just to get to know them, and a relationship develops.

What is the impact of this program on visually impaired people?

Running with a sighted partner helps them build confidence and strength and become healthier and more sociable. The visually impaired are prone to becoming withdrawn from their community. There are some runners who previously were afraid of going out alone, who now have the courage to go out independently and be in contact with their community. As they become healthier and happier, so do their families, and that has a multiplier effect through the whole society. It has been gratifying to see this program grow, with some family members of the visually impaired runners becoming volunteers and couples running together. We had 30 visually impaired runners when I joined the program, and now we have 90 and have established a new running team in another district.

Of course, a guide-running program depends on volunteers. Fortunately, BNY Mellon values corporate social responsibility and diversity and inclusion and gives us the opportunity to participate in and arrange activities for the community.  I am a committee member of BNY Mellon’s HEART employee resource group (Helping Each Ability by Respecting and Teaching) and have helped organize a guide-running workshop. During the workshop, we were all blindfolded as we trained so that we could experience what the visually impaired feel when they walk from pavements to grass and other surfaces. We had to walk up and down stairs and process noisy surroundings from a visually impaired person’s perspective. Around 20 participants from BNY Mellon joined the workshop, and they had an unforgettable and inspiring experience that evening.

The HEART team has also organized Dinner in the Dark – another activity to sensitize sighted people to the experience of visually impaired people. We had dinner in a restaurant, which created a completely dark environment. We needed to rely on our senses to taste and feel the food, to feel the surroundings and react to the people with us in complete darkness.

It sounds like guide-running has had a big impact on you.

Like most people, I began volunteering to be of service to others, and quickly realized how much the volunteer experience was doing for me. I learn a lot from the visually impaired runners. They show courage, dedication, diligence and perseverance. They have to practice twice a week, and most of them join in every single time. I like running with them because it’s more than running – it’s rolling inspiration. Having the same positive attitude as these runners inspires me to face my daily live with ease. Their breakthroughs are worth everyone's applause. They shine!