Managing periods when you have a visual impairment

15 January 2020.

We conducted a small survey, in collaboration with VI Talk, a fantastic social support network for anyone with a visual impairment. We asked respondents if they had any top tips and tricks to share with others. This is what they had to say…

1. Track your cycle and get to know your body’s changes

Image of Menstrual Matters Tracking Chart

The thing our survey participants found most difficult about getting periods, was knowing when they would start. All of them recommended writing down when your period starts so you can calculate the typical cycle length. Through this, some had been able to find a pattern that they could use to estimate when their next period might start:

“For me, the next period usually begins a little after the previous one was the previous month. So, if I get my period on November 12, it will come a little later in December.”

Note- cycle length tends to vary by 2-4 days each cycle, so this method can only provide an approximate start date [1].

For others, it is more complicated: “some of my periods [cycles] were very long, other times they were very short.” In situations like this, or simply to have a more accurate way to predict a period, our participants found it most effective to notice and track the physical changes they were experiencing in the days prior to menstruation. After all, as one person told us, “my body is usually very good at cluing me in”.

“I usually know my period is coming because I start to cramp … When the cramps are really bad, I know it’s right around the corner. Also, my sex drive is much higher than usual, which is another clue.”

“My breasts get quite sensitive when my period approaches. I drink more than usual and I might get angry more easily in the last days before my period.”

 “I get chocolate cravings and facial spots a few days before. I also get stomach cramps and feel tired as I come on.”

2. Use your other senses

Image of woman's pierced nose and stuck out tongue
Image: Oleg Magni@Pexels

Even if you know when to expect your period, when you have a visual impairment, it can be difficult to tell if you are actually bleeding or not. Many of us have experienced that feeling of ‘phantom bleeding’ when you think your period has started, but it turns out to be nothing or just some clear discharge. You might notice that your underwear has become wet, but our participants told us that it is often hard to tell whether this is blood or discharge without seeing what colour it is.

Our participants found that the easiest way to distinguish the two was simply to smell or taste it. Menstrual fluid tastes or smells metallic (from the iron in red blood cells), whereas non-menstrual discharge is salty/ tangy [2].

NOTE – There is nothing gross or weird about doing this. Menstrual fluid is not an excretory product like urine or faeces so it isn’t removing waste products or toxins from the body. It is just the cells from the lining of your womb (very much like those found on the inside of your cheek) with some blood and other ‘clean’ fluids! [3]

3. Shame sells – but remember, everybody leaks!

We were interested to find out if people with a visual impairment were more, less, or equally affected by the shame attached to ‘leaking’- a visible sign of the stigmatised female reproductive body.

Sadly, it seems as though menstrual stigma may create a double burden for our participants: They expressed increased anxiety about the potential humiliation of leaking, since it is more difficult to identify the onset of menstrual flow and any stains, plus they faced additional financial/ emotional costs when taking extra measures to ‘protect’ against leaks.

Image of UK bank notes and coins
Image: Suzy Hazelwood@ Pexels

For example, many participants try to reduce the chance of leaking onto clothes or other surfaces by wearing a pad, or sometimes more than one at once, in advance of their period; “It might waste a few pads but it saves the embarrassment of someone noticing.” Some also opted to wear dark clothing or two pairs of underwear in the days leading up to their period.

Image of blonde woman with ashamed body position
Image: Andrew Neel @ Pexels

Some of our participants also noted that there is an added layer of shame that comes with having to rely on others to inform you about a leak;

“Sometimes sighted people can be inconsiderate if they see you have been bleeding or you have experienced leaking. They have experienced it too, but because you are blind some people tend to think they have to be patronizing or overprotective.”

 Because people with visual impairments may have never been aware of another person experiencing a leak, it can feel as though it is a problem particular to them. “It‘s a bit like we don‘t see it when sighted people spill food on their clothing and therefore you might get the impression as a blind child these things only happen to you because you are blind.”

Understanding that leaking can happen to anyone, and is not something that should be subject to shame, is incredibly important. One informant recalled someone telling her that she had leaked: “it made me feel embarrassed but also I know that it happens to other people so it’s not the end of the world”.

4. Talk about periods

Indeed, what helped many of our participants was learning more about menstrual health and being able to talk to others about this topic.

Two women looking at their phones and chatting“I was introduced to periods at school [in] about year 6. However, I also discussed them at home with my mum and had a book about puberty to read in Braille which contained a section about periods. I felt informed and knew how to manage them. I did understand what I was told and my visual impairment wasn’t a barrier.”

 “The more educated I’ve become about periods, the more I’ve found the topic amazing and inspiring … it really helped me to understand [my cycle] … I’ve found it really inspiring to hear professional sports women speak about their periods and that encouraged me to try and understand my own body more.”

 While close friends and family are often the first port of call, our participants expressed that being able to talk to other members of the visual impairment community through networks, like VI Talk, is crucial to learning how to handle specific issues. In fact, one of our participants learnt to check if she was bleeding by tasting her menstrual blood through an online discussion.

5. Improve menstrual education and public facilities

Our participants especially valued learning about different period products and how to use them. One of our participants recalled her mother teaching her to use a pad ‘hand over hand’: “There were a lot of accidents but I got the hang of it eventually”. Yet it is a lesson that is absent from mainstream education. Many of the people we surveyed expressed a wish to have been introduced to a wider range of period products and given the opportunity to try them out at school [4].

Image of overflowing period product binThe specific needs of menstruating people with visual impairments are not always met. A major problem for several participants is the inaccessibility of public toilets; not every public toilet has a bin, or at least one that is clean and easy to navigate by touch, or even within reaching distance of the toilet. Also, machines that dispense period products are hard to locate and use- something that is easily solved by the provision of free products in public toilets.

Managing your period with a visual impairment brings particular challenges which sometimes require innovative solutions, but this information is also of benefit to anyone who menstruates, and to the menstrual health movement more widely. We are grateful to the members of VI Talk who facilitated this discussion and for their insightful answers. You can learn more about the network and how to access resources here: https://www.vitalk.co.uk/

Blog Author: Tsara Crosfill Morton, Menstrual Matters Research Intern

Researchers: Sally King and Tsara Crosfill Morton


References and Notes:

[1] Check out what is normal for menstrual cycle length in this blog post. See: https://www.menstrual-matters.com/blog/cycle-length/

[2] NOTE – While it is normal for menstrual fluid to have an earthy /metallic smell, and for non-menstrual discharge to have a salty/ tangy smell, a ‘fishy’ smell is an indication of Bacterial Vaginosis (BV). See this page for more information on common vaginal infections- https://www.menstrual-matters.com/tips-and-tricks/thrush-bv/ 

[3] For more information about the myth of the ‘dirty’ period, see this blog- https://www.menstrual-matters.com/blog/top-10-period-myths/

[4] We conducted an independent and comprehensive review of all the different period management products available here: https://www.menstrual-matters.com/blog/top-mops/


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