Dialogue In The Dark

No, this is NOT about “pillow talk”, but rather the name of an awareness-raising experience that takes the form of “exhibitions” around the world. The only venue in the U.S. is located right here in Atlanta and this past Saturday I had the opportunity to take part in the experience with my co-worker, Sue.

Do you remember when you were a child and you first found out that there were people in the world who were blind and could not see? Was your first reaction like mine; to close your eyes for as long as possible and try to navigate around without being able to see so you could try to experience what it felt like to be sightless? And the first time you bumped into something or fell, your eyes would fly open to see what had happened? This experience is similar, except your eyes are already open because this hour-long participatory adventure takes place in a completely darkened environment. I mean absolutely pitch-black-can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face blackness.

And it is, pardon the pun, eye-opening.

Groups are usually limited to 8-10 people. Our group consisted of 10. Before entering, we were asked to place any light-emitting device such as a cellphone or wristwatch into a personal locker, along with anything loose such as glasses, pens, jewelry, etc that we would not want to lose in the darkness. (When we emerged at the end, Sue had lost a pair of magnifying glasses she used for reading that she hung on her blouse and an earring; fortunately neither was an expensive item) Then each person is given a red-tipped white cane and taught how to “sweep” the area in front of your feet for obstructions.

We were then led into a darkened ante-room where the only light came from individually lighted cubes that we sat upon while we listened to instructions. Our guide would be a blind or visually-impaired individual (literally, the blind leading the blind). We were informed that the entire experience is monitored by staff members using infra-red video cameras throughout the area, and were told what the experience would consist of and what behavior was expected of us (no one removes their clothes or uses the darkness to get “frisky”) and if anyone became so uncomfortable that they could not continue they would be guided out by a staff member.

I’m assuming all of the above and more has happened or they wouldn’t be bringing it up. We were also told to look at the people on each side of us and apologize now because we would most likely be bumping into someone during the experience.

As this was happening, the lights in the cubes became more and more dim until the room was completely dark. At that point our guide entered the room and asked us to stand and walk toward a rail that we had seen in the middle of the room and grasp it with our free hand (the other one was using the cane to sweep the floor in front of us). Once there she told us to walk toward the sound of her voice and we began our experience.

Over the next hour or so, with the voice of our guide directing us, we walked through a park, complete with grass under our feet, birds singing, trees rustling in the breeze and a small stream with a bridge we had to cross; entered a store and identified items by feel and produce by feel and smell; crossed a busy city street at the sound of a chirping crosswalk light while cars whizzed by so fast you could feel the wind as they passed and their horns sounded and people talked and walked by you. We took a boat ride and felt the spray of water on our faces and heard the sounds of seagulls as they flew around us, then finished up in a cafe where we ordered drinks, paid for them, received our change and then sat as a group (still in complete darkness) in a large circular booth and asked questions of our guide for about 15 minutes.

It is difficult to explain in words how completely enveloped in the experience you become. Everything is sensory input from touch, smell, hearing and taste and the removal of sight forces those remaining senses to become heightened and sharpened. Being inexperienced, you sometimes make a mistake (is that a small apple or a regular-sized plum?) or get lost (I swore I was at a dead-end at one point, but after feeling my way along a wall discovered a door I had missed) and even feel some natural trepidation in unfamiliar surroundings.

The empathy for those who are blind or visually-impaired that you gain and feel is absolutely priceless. Simply closing your eyes to try and have the same experience is completely inadequate. Being plunged into absolute and total darkness while in an unfamiliar or even familiar environment gives you just a small idea of what life is like everyday for those who are sightless. And it is interesting that we may learn to see by not being able to see. I know my eyes have been opened to what a life without sight might be like.

My grandfather used to say to me, “Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” That mile may be the best thing you will ever do to gain an insight into another person’s life.

If you ever get the chance to take part in the “Dialogue In The Dark” experience I would wholeheartedly encourage you to do so.

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