Dialogue in the Dark

Crossing streets and building bridges in the dark

On The Town | Suzanne Capehart | April 2010

All I could hear was the scuffling of shoes and the plodding of feet. I felt heavy breathing from behind me, making the hair on the back of my neck prickle.  My pace instinctively quickened before I realized the pursuers’ breath was only warm air blowing from an unseen vent. And then I made contact.

"Someone just stepped on my foot," my friend announced, loud enough for the whole group to hear.

"That was me, sorry." I shot back in a whisper, hoping no one could see me blushing. Then I remembered no one could see me at all.

We continued shuffling through the narrow passageway; the firm walls and corners of the invisible pathway becoming close friends in the claustrophobic darkness.  I held onto my cane for dear life, swinging it lightly back and forth in front of my feet.  All of a sudden, it bumped into a smooth, hard object.  I reached out, my unsteady hand making contact with what felt like a side-mirror and a bumper.  Suddenly, my ears detected the screeching of wheels and honking of horns.  Our guide, Reinhard Marth, cleared his throat.

"Ok, everyone, it’s time to cross the street."

Here in Vienna’s "Dialogue in the Dark," an underground exhibition presenting a day in the life of the blind, crossing a simulation of a busy street is just one of the many things that you’ll do. My friends and I cautiously meandered through a forest park, felt the wind in our hair as we took a boat ride, and even ordered drinks at a bar—totally alienated from our most utilized sense. With only the sound of my guide’s voice, a cane, and my companions, I stumbled through an obstacle course of reality rendered unfamiliar in the dark.

"Dialogue in the Dark" is a worldwide exhibit started in 1988 by Andreas Heinecke after his friend lost his sight in a car crash.  Today, over 110 cities in the world have hosted these "dark" exhibitions, trying to bridge the gap between the blind and the seeing. Reinhard Marth summed up the mission in one sentence.

"Tolerance," he said, "for all people.  And to see the positive aspects of being blind."

In addition to giving tours, "Dialogue in the Dark" also provides a "Taste of Darkness," a four-course meal consumed in the dark, as well as leadership training activities and teambuilding exercises to strengthen cooperation and cohesion between a company or a group.

I felt like I was drifting in my own little bubble with a permeable shell. Every sound seemed twice as important, every physical sensation critical. Even though the 100 by 100 meter site was light-proof, I kept my eyes wide open, a futile denial against what my eyes were telling (or not telling) me.  You can’t see.  Gradually, I began to relax, losing my fear of getting isolated from the group.

While sitting at the dark bar, listening to the familiar sounds of the clinking of glass and the babble of voices, Plato’s famous allegory of the cave popped into my head.  Plato believed the unenlightened masses must climb out from the metaphorical cave to the light of day, if they ever wish to experience pure truth and beauty. Here in the dark, Plato’s allegory failed to resonate with the clarity it once pertained. I’ve learned now that the blind find their way through darkness everyday, armed with the mindset that blindness is merely another way of living life, not a disability or a hindrance. They follow a different set of signs and signals than our blatant stoplights and stop signs, deriving oratory and physical cues from sound and touch. They read a map of the city from the crevices in the sidewalks and the blaring of horns that we can’t begin to decipher. Maybe Plato had it wrong.  Truth and Beauty, the hallowed Forms, are not only the things that glisten and glitter in the light of day.

Wouldn’t we all better appreciate the timbre of a friend’s voice or the sound of a smile in someone’s laugh, if we weren’t so distracted by the plethora of sights before our eyes? The darkness allowed me to sit back and just listen to the conversation around me.

Not long after I experienced "Dialogue in the Dark," the automatic timer light for the stairwell in my apartment switched off as I was halfway down the stairs.  I found myself once more shrouded in familiar darkness.  Instead of hitting the light switch like I normally would, I took a deep breath and continued blindly onward, more aware of the tile under my sneakers and how many stairs were on each floor.

Little details like these, never apparent until another sense is gone, are packed into every moment of our lives. They don’t have to be hidden, but only reveal themselves if we step away from the light and into the dark.


"Dialog im Dunkeln"


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    the vienna review April 2010