Let me begin by saying that being blind is no joke. For an evening, I feigned blindness for the sake of learning. As I was thinking of catchy blog titles and things to say, all of the “eye opening” references came to mind. But after the experience, I realized quickly that those silly little comments are not as funny as I originally thought. Imagine only seeing darkness, not being able to see the sun, or your child’s face when they are born. Think about how it would be not to see the food that you are eating.
The Louisiana Association for the Blind (LAB) presented “Dining in the Dark” at Superior Steakhouse in Shreveport, Louisiana on February 27, 2016. The fundraising event was meant to benefit the residents of Northwest Louisiana who live with severe vision impairment. LAB was established in 1927 and provides jobs, as well as training and services for people of all ages with low vision blindness. They employ people with vision impairment through four different divisions: LAB Industries, Ability Printing, AbilityOne Base Supply Centers, and the Low Vision Rehabilitation Center. The dining experience was also a way to raise awareness and understanding of what it is like to dine without vision. While dining is not the only challenge that people with blindness have to overcome, it is an opportunity to share a small sampling of the skill learning that LAB offers.
On a side note, I’ve worn glasses since the fifth grade. Well . . . “worn” may be stretching it. I’ve been “prescribed” glasses since the fifth grade. Because of my vanity I didn’t wear them with consistently, and then I started to drive. I realized that I must do something, so I got contacts until 2009 when I had PRK surgery to correct my distance vision. As a kid, I’m not sure why, but I would challenge myself by walking around my house with my eyes closed so that I would be able to find my way around if I ever became blind. I also would close my eyes in restaurants thinking that I could sharpen my hearing. I’ve always thought that I would be able to manage if ever became blind. This event proved me to be full of nonsense.
As my boyfriend Ed, and I approached the table, we immediately saw aprons and eye masks at each place setting. Not just any eye masks, but really swanky, light blocking masks with room for your eyes to blinks. I assumed that was so you would have the ability to keep your eyes open during the experience, while maintaining visual impairment. In the printed program, we found “tips and tricks” for successful dining. We’d need to rely on our other senses and abilities, introduce our table mates, imagine a typical place setting, keep contact with the table, and tips for using utensils and drink ware. What you need to know about me is that I go all in when I participate in events. Once my mask went on, there would be no peeking, so I ran through the tips and got ready to start eating blindly.
Several times during the meal, I was aware that some people at my table had lifted their masks for a peek here and there. I totally get that this was a fun experiment and that not everyone would take it as a serious learning lesson like I had. In fact, at one point I was told that many of the people in the room had already taken off their masks to eat. I realized that I had to keep my mask on. People with low vision don’t get to turn their vision on and off. For just a few hours, I wanted to be immersed in what it felt like and as I sat at the table blindfolded, here are only a few of the things that I felt and thought:
- Body Language: Body language cues aren’t there to pick up on how verbal expressions land. This alone can make everything more difficult. “Did I say something inappropriate?” “Is that why everyone stopped talking?”
- I felt isolated: Again, with no visual clues as to when it’s appropriate to speak, I found myself listening and being less engaged in the conversation.
- Time moves slower: Waiting on the wait staff to deliver food seemed to take an enormously long time. Engaging with dining partners to fill the time is a bit of a challenge when sight is not involved.
- Trust issues: I can imagine trust issues must be magnified when visually impaired. I trusted the wait staff when they said my wine was at my 1:00 and my plate was set up with certain foods at the 6:00 position.
- Spatial Relations: Navigating spatial relation is tough. I bumped into my waiter twice when he was setting food in front of me. It made me more conscious that I, as a sighted person, want to be more respectful of a visually impaired person’s personal space.
- Self-consciousness, vanity and confidence: My normal self-consciousness would be challenged if I ever became blind. I noticed as I was sitting at the table I didn’t have much control over what my hair looked like or if my décolletage was exposed. I dropped my salad fork before I ever started eating, and my confidence was not very high that I would be successful in feeding myself.
- Relationships: Being in a relationship with someone would be based on less superficial exchanges. I heard Edward in a very new and different way. His voice inflections and pauses became more important without seeing his facial expressions. I wondered how I would have even met him if I had not first seen him and then to know what he looked like. I tried the cliché Helen Keller movie version of touching his face and I realized that being able to see a person is way different than relying on the shapes on their face. At one point, Ed and I exchanged a kiss, which was a bit difficult, but also way more hands on, so maybe that was ok.
- Hearing differently: I was more aware of slight accents, voice changes, and pauses in conversations. As we were dining, I noticed one of the other attendees at our table had an accent that I hadn’t noticed prior to blindfolding. It was helpful in beginning a conversation with him about where he was born.
- People are really loud: Several voices in the room seemed to be on speaker volume. It made me think that I want to be more aware when I speak in public. It also made me realize that all my practice as a kid did no good for me. All of the sounds in the room were intensified and I had a hard time just being able to hear the people at my table.
- Smelling: I could smell and identify the food before it arrived. That was almost a comfort. I couldn’t see what I was eating, but I trusted my waiter to tell me what was on my plate. My sense of smell helped me trust what he said.
- Eating: I found out, and was proud of the fact, that I was pretty darn good with a fork and knife. I decided that I would still need to go to Weight Watchers if I ever became blind, but how would that work? Many of our eating habits are based on seeing our food. I cleared my plate, but to be sure, I asked my server and she confirmed that I did.
- Impairment: Drinking while visually impaired is a double whammy. By the time my 3rd course arrived, I had two glasses of champagne and almost 3 glasses of wine. The combination of being visually impaired and intoxicated was quite problematic.
- Social Media: Anyone who knows me knows that I have a slight social media addiction. I like snapping photos, posting on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. Not once during my meal did I pick up my phone. I knew if I did that I would be inclined to peek through my mask and I wanted to get the full experience of what it would be like if I were blind. It also reminded me that the visually impaired have to rely on experiential memories rather than visual memories.
- Visual impairment is not the worst thing: The thought that kept occurring to me was that people with visual impairments have to learn to adjust and do more during just one meal than I have to do all day long.
The “Dining in the Dark” experience was enjoyable, made me appreciative that I have sight, and more aware of the challenges that the visually impaired face each day. I am so glad to have been exposed to LAB and the services that they offer to those who have become blind or of low vision. They are providing opportunity and support to those in our communities who without it may be left in a situation of despair. I’d encourage you to take care of your eyes, and remember the Louisiana Association for the Blind in the event that you or someone you know ever needs their services.
To learn more about The Louisiana Association for the Blind:
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