In the last two weeks, I've had two experiences with simulated blindness. First was a Dinner in the Dark, an event hosted by a church that's getting ready to open a Blind Mission outreach center in Portland. The second opportunity came when a home school family visited my library during their "special needs week" and happened to check out a Braille item.
See? There I am, in the background, in the spaghetti-colored blouse. (Rufus would have had a heyday cleaning up the floor!) The purpose of a Dinner in the Dark is to show sighted people how inept we can be without sight. It's effective, lemme tell you. Dishing noodles was no fun, but I finally realized that no one could see me so I might as well use my fingers to help.
Actually, eating wasn't the biggest challenge I felt. Rather, it was the disorientation of conversation. All of a sudden, a man's voice right above my shoulder said, "I'm going to take your plate to put the sauce on for you." Oh! Chatting with my neighbor was okay, but I made sure to point my head in her direction so maybe she'd know I was talking to her and not Mr. Deep Voice.
Thinking back, I guess it felt like I was in a bubble. I knew there were lots of people in the room, but I didn't have a sense of where they were. The sighted helpers' footsteps were silent, allowing them to appear and disappear without warning. (Also, the blindfold was over my ears, muffling the sound just a little.) It was kind of spooky. If I'd had more time, I would have been more careful of what I said and when, not knowing if there were other ears listening.
I've had one other dining in the dark experience. Several years ago, during my second conference with Lutheran Blind Mission, I put on a blindfold to go to dinner. Someone loaned me a white cane, and another person guided me through the food line. Again, eating was okay, but conversation was difficult. I could concentrate on my dinner or I could really listen to what was happening. Navigating with the cane was fine, because I knew the hallway well. When a blind friend offered to guide me back to the conference room, I relaxed and let him lead the way. I even trusted him not to walk me into a doorpost!
Back to the present. The mom and three elementary-age kids said no, they didn't have any Braille besides the library book, and no one to help them with it. Thanks to my friend's quick thinking, we came up with a plan for them to come to the library when I got off work on Thursday. I subscribe to a monthly magazine in Braille, and have lots of old copies sitting around the house. I brought one for each of them to use.
We talked about their one-day taste of blindness, and it was interesting to hear their perspectives on this experiment. These kids are confident, self-assured folks, and they approached each day of their "special needs week" with a can-do attitude. One day was spent being mute, another day in wheelchairs, yet another day on crutches or wheelchair, and then came the eye patches and sunglasses. Oh... a funny aside. One of my coworkers offered the family a tour of the library. It didn't dawn on me until much later that the librarian couldn't see their eye bandages because the sunglasses covered them! I'm sure she was not the only person that day who thought they really were blind!
One of the girls realized that she had never seen the room we were using. "I wish I could take my patches off just for a minute so I could see where we are!" That reminded me of when I lost my sense of smell. I said much the same thing, many times, wishing for just one more chance to get a whiff of my sons' heads or a new recipe or a wild rose. In my case, memory will have to serve.
There wasn't time for a full-blown Braille lesson (as if I could teach one anyway), but I had them search in their magazines for a full cell of six dots. That represents the word "for" and is, obviously, pretty common. A page of Braille is about equal to a third of a page of print, and that gave them a better understanding of why their magazines are so bulky. I read a sentence or two for them, using touch only, and did not wow them with my speed.
We discussed some statistics about the blindness community -- 70% unemployment, 18% Braille literacy rate, 60% unmarried, 95% unchurched. Isolation is very common. Towards the end of our time, one of the kids sank into a very deep state of (ahem) contemplation. His breathing slowed enough that one of his sisters noticed and asked him if he was sleeping. "No," he mumbled, sitting up straighter. "Just thinking a thought that needed thinking," or something like that. Hahahaha! The hidden danger of wearing eye patches!
Good opportunities for learning, for thinking outside of our own boxes, for trying new things.