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Dialogue in the Dark

Things to do, Educational venues Docklands
 (Photograph: Dialogue Social Enterprise)
Photograph: Dialogue Social Enterprise
 (Photograph: Dialogue Social Enterprise)
Photograph: Dialogue Social Enterprise
 (Photograph: Dialogue Social Enterprise)
Photograph: Dialogue Social Enterprise

Step into the dark and experience life with low vision in this immersive installation from Guide Dogs Australia

With a cane in my hand, I take a deep breath and walk into the darkness. I grip onto a handrail and follow it down a ramp, unable to see even the hand in front of my face. Eventually the handrail ends, and with trepidation, I step out on my own into a room. Our guide for the experience (who lives with low vision) asks us to consider what we’re noticing. I feel a cool breeze on my face, and I smell eucalyptus. I stretch out my hand, and run my fingers over smooth leaves and a rough tree branch. I realise I’m in a recreation of a park, and the world begins to open up.

Dialogue in the Dark – an immersive installation that has opened this month at Harbour Town in Docklands – is a global phenomenon brought to Australia for the first time by Guide Dogs Australia. It was founded in 1988 by a social entrepreneur in Frankfurt, and has since expanded to over 40 countries.

Karen Hayes, CEO of Guide Dogs Victoria, explains that the aim of the program is twofold. The foremost goal is to create employment for some of the 480,000 Australians who are blind or vision impaired. “Seventy-eight per cent of people who are blind or vision impaired are unemployed,” she explains. “To me that’s incredibly unfair because a lot of these people have done university degrees and pushed through major barriers.”

The second goal is to give the community insight into the lives of those living without vision. “I’m seeing this as ‘edutainment’,” says Hayes. “Your sight is your primary sense, and when you lose that your brain goes through this process of getting everything else to kick in. Because it’s experiential it really resonates with you at a very deep level to question your own behaviour and your own thinking. It is a life-changing experience.”

After leaving the 'park', my guide leads me with her voice through other recreated city sites. I plunge my hand into dark-roasted coffee beans at a the Queen Victoria Market, touch the statue of Ron Barassi at the MCG and listen to the crowd noises around me on a busy street. Just when I’m starting to feel more confident with my cane, I’m asked to board a 'tram' – which is incredibly difficult (and that’s without any other passengers) – then cross the road. I’m struck by how alert I need to be to get by without sight, and how distracted I often am from the world around me outside of this simulated environment.

Towards the end of my journey, I’m taken into my guide’s ‘lounge room’. While a kettle boils, we talk about our different and shared experiences of life in Melbourne. My guide is warm, funny and very open about talking about the way she lives (and thrives). And then I realise what really makes Dialogue in the Dark meaningful: genuine connection between people who share the same city, but live their lives differently.

“The general public is often hesitant to engage with us,” says another guide, Francois Jacobs. “There is an apprehension of what you should and shouldn’t do. I look forward to teaching people that they don’t need to have a glum view of the blind. Blindness is just another attribute and as soon as you can cope with what affects your life, the happier you will be.”

Venue name: Dialogue in the Dark
Address: Harbour Town Melbourne
Lvl 1, 29-31 Star Crescent
Opening hours: Tue-Thu 10am-6pm; Fri 10am-9pm; Sat 10am-6pm
Price: $19.50-$43.30
Static map showing venue location