Citizen cane: Dialogue in the Dark

We stumble through the ‘Dialogue in the Dark’ exhibition that puts blindness in a whole new light

President of Malaysia Glaucoma Society, Stevens Chan. Photo: Amir Rashid

We often hear the phrase, 'You're only limited by your imagination.' But what if imagination is all you have? Many times we turn to words, colours and configuration of space to make sense of our surroundings. But for the visually impaired who can't call up any images at all, how they perceive reality is mostly limited to sound, smell and touch. Without any new visuals to feed their imagination, does their inner world shrink? Do the blind feel claustrophobic? And most importantly, do they need help? These are some of the questions I had for Lisa - my guide at the 'Dialogue in the Dark' exhibition - who went blind a few years ago.

'Dialogue in the Dark' isn't new. Founded by German journalist and social entrepreneur Andreas Heinecke 25 years ago, the exhibition has travelled across 30 countries and 130 cities worldwide. In Malaysia, founder and president of the Malaysia Glaucoma Society Stevens Chan started the 'Dialogue in the Dark' movement in November 2012 to allow sighted participants to experience visual impairment. This exhibition, more a form of participatory exercise than a presentation, puts participants through 45 minutes of moving around a constructed room in absolute darkness.

Navigating around the exhibition required a lot of guesswork so we were completely dependent on Lisa's voice for instructions. We couldn't see anything at all - not our hands in front of our faces, nor the 'waterfall' in the distance, nor the 'cricket' that sounded as if it was bellowing for a mate. We blundered into things, discerning directions, unexpected gaps and slopes by holding on to railings, or swinging our white canes to detect obstacles ahead. Then something leafy tickled our cheeks and we could hear twigs crushing under our feet. 'Welcome to Taman Negara,' Lisa said.

The exhibition put us in scenarios and environments mostly familiar to us - a marketplace, a zebra crossing and a kopitiam - except that we were exploring them sightless. This could have been a truly harrowing experience, but we found that without the use of our eyes, our other senses began to compensate - sounds and sensations seemed sharper than ever. Part of the tour also allowed us to purchase a hot cuppa at the kopitiam. Thanks to the invaluable aid of the cashier's voice, we easily placed our order and paid the exact amount required. A daily routine in the dark suddenly became manageable.

But the most formidable barrier the visually impaired face isn't the physical loss of sight but the negative misconceptions attached to the blind. They're a marginalised community, all-too-often stereotyped as helpless and hapless. 'This is what we're trying to change,' says Stevens, who lost his sight to glaucoma at 45 years old. 'Apart from educating people about blindness, we're trying to empower the blind towards independence and inclusion. Our guides have led CEOs and corporate managers in our team-building workshops in the dark where these people in a "superior position" had to depend on those who are seemingly inferior. It's a role reversal that boosts both parties' self-confidence.'

The exhibition has achieved what it set out to do: Provide a glimpse into the world of the blind. Not being able to see for 45 minutes was already unnerving; imagine how bereft we would feel to lose sight of the world completely. It was also through this exhibition that we realised what the visually impaired truly want: To be on equal footing with the rest of the world - it's the only way to reclaim their lives and dignity. With a rehabilitative programme like 'Dialogue in the Dark', such empowerment will at least offer the blind a ray of light in their lives.

'Dialogue in the Darkis currently running at Sunway University.

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