What if you were to lose your vision today? Would you be able to find your way around your room? your home? How about New York City?
One of the most memorable parts of my trip to the Big Apple involved spending 50 minutes “navigating New York City” as a person who is blind. This experience was part of a wonderful exhibit called Dialogue In The Dark.
Armed with a cane each, visitors were led into a room where we were asked to wait for our tour guide. Before we knew it, all that we could see before us gradually faded into 100% pitch black darkness. All of a sudden, our feelings of excitement turned into a sense of nervousness and uncertainty. The crack of a door opening, followed by footsteps, suggested that our guide had arrived.
Kevin was a friendly-sounding man who is blind. His job was to help the rest of us utilize our other four senses to find our ways around.
“Hi everyone, let’s head on over to Central Park!”
And off we went at a snail’s pace, knees trembling and arms outstretched and somewhat flailing. When we were not accidentally bumping into each other, we were feeling up leaves, and reaching down into a pond of water, listening to the birds, and smelling the sweet scent of flowers. And while part of my adventurous self was enjoying “seeing” my world in a completely different way, I could not ignore how nervous I was about tripping over something or hurting myself.
That fear was really put to the test when it came time to… hop on the NYC subway. As we stood at the platform waiting for the train to arrive, my mind started to race “oh boy, how am I gonna find the door? those don’t stay open for very long, will I fail to get on board? will I be able to find my way through the crowd to get out when it’s time to hop off?” If I was feeling this way in the safe simulated version, I can’t imagine what it’d be like to do it for real, especially during morning rush hour.
Then it came time to do our grocery shopping in a store. It started out being pretty fun as we made our way through the produce section, giving tiny yelps of joy as we correctly identified each fruit and vegetable. But then came the kicker. Our guide Kevin asked us to pick out a can of beans.
But wait… all these cans feel the same! With no way to read the label, how on Earth would we know what each can contained? Same goes with cookies, crackers, and cereal… one cardboard box feels just like the other. And then it became clear to me… navigating the grocery store to get what I need is almost impossible to do independently if I cannot see. What if a tactile system of sorts was developed for labeling products? How about including braille on labels? or including a machine in each store that provides audio descriptions of products when the barcode is scanned?
Our journey culminated in a quaint little cafe where we were all seated in a large booth and we were given the opportunity to ask our guide Kevin questions. The result was a great dialogue about what it’s like to live with visual impairments. As the conversation carried on, we nearly missed that we were slowly regaining the ability to see again as the lights came back up very subtly. What an experience. And even though most of us were able to just return to our daily routines as sighted folk, there’s no denying that those 50 minutes were very transformative ones that changed the way we see our world.
Check out this video by CNN when their team visited:
Dialogue in the Dark is currently in 20 cities around the world. Click here to find out more about embarking on your own journey.
p.s. this author was most delighted to discover that Dialogue in the Dark is in her hometown of Singapore, and right in her alma mater, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, too!
Written by Shuling Yong
Shuling Yong is the Digital Marketing and Community Engagement Specialist at jjslist.com, a disability awareness training, credentialing and digital marketing social enterprise connecting businesses and people with disabilities. You can find her on Google+ and Twitter.