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Pathfinder Dogs – Cooking Blind workshops

Anne Royle of Pathfinder Dogs recognised a need to support blind and partially-sighted people with basic meal preparation. She began by running ad-hoc sessions and was awarded CFHS funding to develop a series of workshops.


German Shepherds: The Original Guide Dog - Pathfinder Dogs: Partnering blind people to independenceAnne Royle founded Pathfinder Dogs as a charity in 2003 in Lanarkshire with the aim of training and providing German shepherd dogs throughout the UK as guide dogs for people who are blind or partially sighted. Anne, who is blind herself had discovered there was a long waiting list for those who prefer German shepherds as guide dogs, so set up this unique dog training programme.

As a charity, Pathfinder Dogs has and continues to use a wide range of activities to bring in funding to support the dog training programmes. This included a shop, which eventually became a popular coffee shop. Unfortunately, the shop is currently closed due to water damage in 2019.

A few years ago, Anne was approached by a parent of a blind young woman with autism and asked to help the young woman become more independent, particularly around eating and drinking. Anne recognised there was a need to support more people with basic meal preparation and began running ad-hoc workshops for small groups or individuals. Anne was awarded funding from CFHS in 2017 and 2018 to help further develop these ‘Cooking Blind’ workshops.

How it works?

Who attended the workshops?

Adults who are blind or partially sighted attended the workshops and had a wide range of skill levels and some had additional vulnerabilities. Some had the support of friends and families, others were more socially isolated.

How the workshops were run

Anne led the workshops for individuals and groups and was able to receive help from two local chefs for groups that wanted to learn more advanced cooking. Anne herself has extensive catering work experience from when she had previously been sighted. As a blind person, however, Anne was able to teach independent living skills based on her own experience.

Before each workshop Anne would spend time finding out each individual’s needs and assessing their skills. She aimed to find out 1) their experiences and skills 2) their understanding around food 3) their palate; and 4) what skills they wanted to learn and develop.

Each workshop lasted around two hours and ran twice a week most weeks. People attended every week, some attended for over a year, whereas others only needed to come to a few workshops. Each group workshop ended with the group eating together, and Anne used these shared meals to listen out for people’s feedback, concerns or issues they have about cooking or other topics – adjusting the next workshop if necessary.

Anne began the workshops by teaching basic skills for example; food safety and hygiene, making breakfast or drinks, then, she moved onto using partially prepared foods (such as frozen chopped vegetables if people were not yet ready to use a knife). Some people were able to move on to develop a range of other skills, including knife skills (by using the claw and bridge technique when chopping) to make full main meals from scratch, always using affordable recipes. The workshops used specialist equipment and Anne used the analogue clock method to teach people how to put the food on their plate.

Woman chopping lettuce and tomatos

Nutrition information was covered in an informal way, although Anne’s main focus was to encourage people to increase their fruit and veg intake, try new foods and extend the variety of meals people can make for themselves.

Follow on or extra activities

The Pathfinders coffee shop provided volunteering opportunities for people after completing the cooking workshops. A few people took up this opportunity and it helped enhance their skills and confidence around food and customer service. One or two people still volunteer for the charity, after taking part in the workshops or volunteering in the café.

Shopping tips and comparing food costs online were discussed during the workshops. Anne also accompanied people to shops or cafes occasionally, to develop their navigation skills and teach individuals in their own kitchen at home.

Tips and ideas for supporting blind or partially sighted people in the kitchen:

As well always having an organised and clean kitchen so that items can be found easily, Anne used a range of equipment that can make cooking or clearing up easier or safer, including:

  • Using equipment such as a slow cooker
  • Using specialist equipment such as talking scales, liquid level indicators, non-slip mats etc.
  • Adapting existing equipment using Tacti-Marks on equipment to recognise temperature settings and other buttons
  • Storing knives on a magnetic wall strip, rather than in a drawer
  • Encouraging the use of dishwashers (particularly commercial models with fewer settings, suitable for a domestic environment such as table-top catering models) to ensure implements are clean

Additional ideas for supporting people who are partially sighted:

Anne used different lighting to see what suited individuals and would use techniques to support partially sighted people, such as:

  • Using different coloured chopping boards that allows more contrast between the food and the board
  • Using food colouring in butter or spreads to practice getting spread on bread more accurately

Learning and achievements

Anne has found that constant tailoring or adapting to individual needs are essential when supporting people with a range of visual loss, disabilities or differing levels of independence. Ensuring the pace of learning suits different needs and not making assumptions about what people can or can’t do has also been an important learning experience for Anne.

Informal feedback from those attending the workshops and observing their skill development and reactions showed that many people experienced a sense of pride when they were able to make meals to share with others, either at group meals or when serving others in the café. Anne ‘enjoyed watching people blossom’ both socially and with their practical cooking skills. Anne also provided in-house certificates to give to people who finished the workshops to acknowledge their new skills, as she found this helps enhances peoples’ confidence.

Future plans

Anne hopes to expand Pathfinders’ social enterprise activities in the future and hopes this may include more catering, cooking and independent living skills activities. Meanwhile, although the café facility is closed, Anne has continued to support individuals or very small groups with the very basic food skills she can manage within the limited facilities that she has.

Published: January 14, 2020