While in Hamburg Germany, I finally had the opportunity to experience “Dialog in the Dark”. It is an exhibit and role reversal of sighted people and the visually impaired. For 19 euros (about $28) I took a group tour in English with 7 German women in their 60s. They were there with their visually impaired friend to better understand what she went through on a daily basis.
“Dialog in the Dark” operates in many different cities in the world and gives ordinary people a chance to learn and experience being blind for 2 hours in a safe environment. One of the goals is to show that the blind can do many of the same things a sighted person can do, if given the opportunity. In this case, the sighted are guided and taken care of by the visually impaired, and making us think what it means to be “different”, “normal” and “capable”. It also creates jobs for the blind.
We were required to put cell phones, watches and anything else shiny or luminous in a storage locker before we began.
The entire experience took place indoors in special rooms that were completely darkened. We were given a white cane and practiced tapping and sweeping it it along the floor in front of us. The trick is to sweep it slightly wider than our body – not too wide or it bumps into obstacles that don’t matter. The entrance of the corridor was covered in vertical strips of a carpet-like material. We then walked through the corridor, turning several corners. It was completely dark, like a cave. We could not see our hands in front of our faces.
The first room we were introduced to was a park. We used our canes to tap along the pebbly path, feeling tree leaves and bushes on our right and discovered a wooden totem pole. We heard the sounds of birds chirping felt waterfall spray on our left as our canes bumped into an arched wooden bridge that required us to step up a few inches in order to cross it. Our guide Toby, called to us using while we used the sound of his voice to find our way to where he was on the other side of the room, sweeping our canes in front of us then stepping down from the wooden bridge. We paid attention to the different types of ground we walked on.
Toby guided us through a door into another room. He informed us that this was a warehouse where we were to find small wooden boxes of spices and identify them. We fumbled around to find the boxes of peppercorn, coffee, mint, sesame seeds. And felt successful when we did. Small successes! Some boxes were higher, other boxes were waist level and some were lower. What sounds like a simple task was much more difficult when bumping into wooden boxes and having to stick my hands inside to feel and smell the spices. I realize how much I rely on my visual sense rather than my sense of smell. These items were distinct in their odors, so we were all successful. Toby asked which spices we found, and when I missed one, I had to go back to find the box of coffee. How hard it would be for me to identify other items that were not distinct or expected.
Another room was a grocery store and we had to figure out which vegetables were available for us to purchase in order to make dinner. We were not to taste them as they had been handled by a lot of people before us, but the veggies were all real. We identified carrots, coconut, onions and apples by feel and smell and then were asked what kind of apples? I was reminded once again how much I take my vision for granted. If I were blind, dinners would be a surprise to myguests as well as me.
We then followed Toby, tapping and sweeping our way through another doorway into another room. I am not sure how the rooms were changed. I think there may have been a movable, hinged wall to create another environment because I felt a whoosh of air, as we walked through a doorway into the next room into the new scene.
This room was a boathouse. We touched a hanging life preserve ring, some nets, an anchor, and could feel the manufacturers cursive writing on the side of a boat. We could hear sounds like what you would hear on a dock, small waves lapping, and an echo of sounds carrying across the water. We walked across a narrow moving gangplank onto a rocking boat (scary) and sat on a bench.
We were told that the next room contained an automobile, and we were to figure out which kind it was. I had no idea. I felt the cursive writing of the manufacturer but didn’t figure it out. Some of the others recognized the make. (It was a 1969 Citroen).
The hardest obstacle was still coming. Our next scene was in a city and to cross the street. Toby said ”I want to show you something”which tickled my funny bone since no one could see anything.
The crosswalk signs tell you walk or don’t walk at the crosswalk had raised arrows and we could figure out which direction to cross the street based on touching the arrow and feeling the direction it pointed. The crosswalk started beeping that it was safe to cross. I started to cross and promptly lost my sense of direction. I headed to what I thought was the other side, but did not arrive. I turned a bit and continued walking, but still did not get to the other side. The beeping stopped and it was no longer safe to cross.
Toby called “Pam, Where are you?” I replied that “I am lost. I need a seeing eye dog.” Toby informed me “that a dog will not be of help, it is dark and the dog would not be able to see.” I followed Toby’s voice until I found my way to him, frustrated, but at least knowing this was not real life for me. If this had been real life, I would have had cars honking at me and yelling or running me over. It was sooo hard to not know where I was and not know how to get where I was going.
Toby, on the other hand, was an expert on getting around and was very capable. I was reminded of my own prejudices and what it means to be a leader.
The last challenge was to enter a bar, order something, pay for it, then have a seat and enjoy the refreshment while getting to converse and ask questions of Toby. We had the opportunity to ask questions of a blind person that we may never had had the chance to ask before today. I found the bar and ordered a cola and a candy bar. I had brought enough euro coins so that it would be easy for me to not use paper money. I counted out my money by feeling the size of the coins. Toby handed me my cola and candy bar and gently corrected the incorrect coins I had given him. I fumbled my way to the picnic bench and was relieved to have found my seat. Once seated I was afraid to take my hand off my snacks because I may knock them over or not find them again. I thought I had been successful until Toby asked “Pam, why are you sitting on the table and not the bench?”
It was a relief to be done with the frustration of not knowing anything and doing most things wrong, even though it was a safe environment. It also made me think about how we perceive people who look different than us. By removing the looks of someone, it was not distracting, and each of us in the group developed our perceptions of each other based on personality and skill set of our leader.
After leaving the exhibits, I saw a blind man leaving the building. He was probably in his 30s and his face was all banged up, scraped and scabbed over, and bruised. It looked as though he had fallen on his face, hard. He unfolded his white cane with confidence and walked off briskly.
I thought about what it must feel like , as an adult to fall onto something so unforgiving as a sidewalk, face scraping the pavement . I thought about how frustrated I would be and hurt and wanting to cry of anger and frustration and the unfairness of it all. Yet, he walked with confidence. How brave he must be to continue living an independent life without being paralyzed by fear. No one commented on the injuries to his face, and perhaps this was the attraction of the place as well.
We were all curious about what Toby looked like, but we never saw him. He told us he was albino and was in university studying law with a CCTV machine. He also had a machine at home that announced the color of his clothes and he had learned that everything matches black. Reflecting on the experience, I am glad we never got to see Toby. All of our impressions were based on his outstanding personality and competence. Seeing him could only have detracted from that.
I reminded myself to always be grateful.