Does the idea of being plunged into darkness, with your only assistance coming from a complete stranger, sound intense? Well, it is, but in a good way. Last week while I was in Melbourne I popped down to Docklands to take part in a session at Dialogue in the Dark. It was surprising on so many levels, one of which was just how dark it actually was when I walked through to meet my guide. Dialogue in the Dark is thought provoking, testing and is one of the best experiences I’ve had in a long time.
Dialogue in the Dark is an immersive experience designed to push your senses and problem-solving skills to the limit. Presented in partnership with Guide Dogs Australia, Dialogue in the Dark is a social enterprise which provides more than 20 people who are blind or have low vision with employment, training and development opportunities. As a member of the public it gave me the opportunity to explore a world of darkness where I was reliant on my other senses and totally dependent on my guide to help me navigate the challenges I found myself experiencing.
Dialogue in the Dark was founded by Andreas Heinecke in Hamburg in 1988 after an encounter with a journalist, who was blind, changed his life. He learned to understand true potential of an individual who is blind, or has low vision. He went on to create Dialogue in the Dark where a person who is blind leads a sighted person through every day challenges in the dark. After 25 years and 39 countries more than 10 million visitors have had the experience worldwide and upwards of 10,000 people with blindness or partial blindness have been employed.
In the waiting area of Melbourne’s Dialogue in the Dark, visitors have the opportunity to try a few activities in preparation for using their senses, other than their vision, when they enter the experience. BJ attended the Vision Ed preschool at the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children so we have had exposure to Braille and other tools used to assist people who are blind or have low vision. But for visitors who haven’t seen a Braille typewriter or Braille there is a display which includes a Braille version of the children’s book Grandpa’s Great Escape. While I waited for my tour I was encouraged to try the activities. Plunging my hand into the black boxes I used touch to try and work out what was contained in each. I did okay with the pine cones and the toy but failed miserably at the sound shakers.
Visitors need to leave any light emitting devices like phones, watches and Fitbits in a locker with any other belongings. After doing this, I was briefed on what to expect, given a cane and guided through a heavy black curtain where my guide Andy was waiting for me. I couldn’t see a thing. The shroud of darkness was all encompassing and totally disarming. Usually when we are in the dark there’s the moon, street lights or something that keeps it from being truly pitch dark. But that’s not the case in Dialogue in the Dark and the absolute darkness left me standing momentarily paralysed while I adjusted. I didn’t dare take a step forward until I heard a voice. I was slightly relieved when Andy introduced himself. We exchanged a couple of facts about ourselves and then he explained we’d be taking a simulated ‘tour’ around Melbourne from the perspective of someone who is blind.
After my initial hesitation I gradually felt at ease with Andy talking me on our adventure, including walking through a Melbourne park. With no visual distractions I was acutely aware of the sound of children playing, water running and the distant sounds of vehicles. I found myself using the cane and an outstretch arm to guide me around obstacles. As I hit different items in my path Andy would ask me to work out what it was. I found myself feeling the item and using a combination of previous experiences and logic to work out what each object was. I don’t want to share too many details or examples because so much of the experience is enhanced by not knowing what to expect.
Not being able to see what I was touching made me more aware of the detail on each item. I correctly guessed one item in the park was a garbage bin but I couldn’t work out what the letter ‘I’ I could feel was. Eventually I guessed perhaps an ash tray. Later, when I left Dialogue in the Dark, I stopped and looked at a garbage bin and for the first time I noticed the raised shape of a cigarette on either side of the bin. Although I have my sight, I usually just throw the rubbish in without paying attention to this detail.
Andy guided me through several Melbourne experiences. I failed miserably at the sporting element with Andy observing, “You’re not much into sport I’m gathering!” A great insight from someone who had only met me minutes before.
What occurred to me as I put my trust in Andy, is the similarity to the trust people with a disability often have to put into support workers they just meet. Certainly as a parent of a young guy with a disability I am acutely aware of this. It wasn’t just trusting Andy to guide me safely, but having someone I didn’t know guide me through things hand-on-hand. When I needed to work out the lettering on a statue and I couldn’t on my own, Andy guided my finger through the letters trying to assist me n working it out. I wasn’t good at the letters which didn’t really matter but again it was such a reminder of the intimate nature of someone caring for another and the trust which is put in their hands.
After touring a Melbourne Laneway, a kitchen and a shop the tour was over. I felt buoyed by the confidence I’d gained throughout the process and proud at how I’d adapted to the situations. I aced working out the items in the shop and kitchen which somewhat made up for my lack of sporting prowess and gave a little hint to where I am comfortable n my everyday life.
Andy and I then took a seat opposite each other, still in darkness, to take part in the dialogue part of the experience. Andy asked how I’d found the experience and wanted to know if I had any questions. After depending on Andy I was keen to know a little more about him. Andy happily shared information about his vision impairment including that he only has light perception in one eye and only 1.5% vision in his other eye. His vision loss started when he was four and a half and was lost in chunks of vision causing him to readjust several times in his life. Before we went out into the light I asked Andy if there was any message he’d like to pass on to people and his comment was a simple one, “You never know what is around the corner in life.” It’s a good reminder to us all to appreciate what we have and make full use of the senses we have.
Dialogue in the Dark was equal parts confronting and exhilarating. I think it’s wonderful they offer schools the opportunity to take part in educational excursions and companies the chance to do team building with half-day corporate workshops.
I was the only person participating in the late afternoon session I booked mid-week. While I felt safe at all times, it’s wise to take into consideration the participants personality and if they are likely to be frightened at all by not being able to see anything.
I suggest contacting the staff at Dialogue in the Dark to make sure the accessibility of this attraction meets your needs. There is lift access to the first level of The District Docklands.
The Dialogue in the Dark premises are wheelchair accessible. To access the experience you need to be able to transfer to the wheelchair provided as it is able to fit through the obstacles within the attraction. Again, I suggest contacting the staff to see if is suitable to your needs.
If you’d like to find out more, or book a session, I suggest visiting the Dialogue in the Dark website. And if you live overseas, check to see if there’s a Dialogue in the Dark near you as I highly recommend the experience.