An enlightening discussion about Dialogue in the Dark:
“The only way to learn is through encounter” – Martin Buber
At least once per week, someone tells me “it must be so scary to be blind”, “you are so brave”, or “it must be so difficult to live in the dark.” One of my interests is educating people about what being blind actually means, in the hope of dispelling stereotypes and misconceptions. However, in the last few months I have been receiving more and more of these comments, and I discovered that several people had approached me after experiencing Dialogue in the dark. My first reaction was: this exhibit might be scaring people more than helping them. After further reflection, I decided that this might not be the case and that the best way to find out would be for me to actually experience this exhibit for myself.
Review: Dialogue in the dark
What I encountered at Dialogue in the dark was unlike anything that I expected, which manifested both positive and negative consequences. I was expecting an exhibit that educated people on what it is like to be blind in ways such as addressing the strategies and techniques that we use to navigate through various environments. It turned out to be more of a sensory trip through New York City which I actually enjoyed for what it was, although I truly had hoped for so much more.
There were several aspects that I enjoyed. Every participant was given a cane to use, so I was thrilled to be the only person who was prepared by already having one. In addition, I felt empowered standing in the dark with other sighted people who were new to this experience; they seemed disoriented and had difficulty adjusting to their environment.
The leader took us to our first scene: Central Park. We found this by examining our surroundings: a water fountain, plants, a bicycle, trash can, and sound of birds. I’m not sure how this showed the group how blind people travel through Central Park, but I liked searching the area for clues to our location and it was great that Dialogue brought in so many items to replicate the park environment. Next was a grocery store where we had to identify items on shelves by touch. Our leader accurately pointed out that realistically most people who are blind will ask for assistance with shopping or go to the customer service counter for help. That being said, I’m not sure what is to be gained by shaking boxes of cereal with the intent of discovering their contents or why the leader would ask us to shake cans of food to identify them. In real life we don’t do this because it is not an effective technique. In fact, I was shocked when the leader handed me a bottle and expected that I would know what it was, when there are several bottles that feel the same as this one so I had no idea. Our next stop was a subway station, and we were told to walk up three steps to get to the platform. Upon further reflection, I’m not sure if this was handled in the best way because it would have been more helpful for each person to find out how many stairs there were just as people who are blind do every day. We stepped onto the “train” which I enjoyed as a realistic model. However, the whole experience was far too easy and I’m not sure what anyone learned about subway travel for the blind. Even a few tips about how we navigate subways or buses would have gone a long way towards educating our group but as I said, Dialogue was mostly focused on sensory aspects. After exiting the train, we felt a table from a vender selling New York City merchandise and various gifts within the subway station. On the rare occasions when I go to Times Square, I have found that most venders do not like people to touch their table and would rather ask you what you want. Therefore, it was nice to have an opportunity to explore the table but it was far from realistic. Finally we arrived in Times Square with sound effects galore: cars, yelling people, construction, and various other unidentifiable noises. I believe that Dialogue did the best job they could of replicating the sounds of Times Square, even though I could tell it was quite distracting to the other participants and a little for me as well. I also think that we were rushed through this part of the exhibit, there was so much to learn about how blind people navigate Times Square but the leader moved us from one object to the next rather quickly. We discovered a car that was cut in half for some odd reason and we were asked to identify which was the front and which was the back half. Once again, I was intrigued by this exercise but it had no relevance to my life. Do I really walk down 42nd street touching cars and wondering if I’m feeling the front or back of it? The leader then showed me an item which I discovered was a hot dog cart. I found it interesting to examine its different parts, but I would never touch a hot dog cart in real life. Afterwards, we sat in a café and discussed our experience and asked the leader a few questions which he answered very well.
So what did I learn from Dialogue in the dark? We live in a city where there is a vast amount of information to be gathered and perceived through each of our senses. I learned that there are many smells and sounds which can potentially be taken for granted if people rely too much on their sight. Traveling in the dark reminded me how much I rely on my seemingly small amount of light and shadow perception; something which normally I am able to use effectively. I also was reminded that being in the dark for an hour does not replicate what it is like to be blind because we have had years to adjust and find techniques that work for us in our daily lives. I applaud Dialogue in the dark for its effort but hope that it can improve in the future. I envision a day when it is transformed from a sensory tour into a place where sighted people can truly learn how people who are blind travel, work, shop, dine out, and maybe even how we use technology. There are a great deal of topics which we would like to educate our sighted peers about, and the start of a new era of communication could begin with Dialogue in the dark.