Editor’s note: Dialogue in the Dark is a worldwide social enterprise that has arrived in Melbourne, Australia. One of our peer advisors Maribel Steel has trained and is working as a tour guide for the inaugural group for the Melbourne exhibition. Here she shares how the experience is helping to "open the eyes" of the sighted community in Australia from her personal account as a tour guide.
Impressions in the Darkness
Picture this if you can: I am standing by a sliding door in the pitch black and hear a group of people walking towards me, although it sounds more like a scared shuffle with their white canes swinging wildly, banging the walls. They grip a long handrail that leads them in a zig-zag path from the light into total darkness. Secretly I think, "Guys, take it easy. You’re going to destroy the black paint on the walls." Then I remind myself, what does this matter if no one can see here anyway?
My voice suddenly alerts them to the fact that at the end of the hand rail, an actual person is in close proximity—they are not alone in the dark. Then I hear their voices expressing their astonishment, "It’s so dark in here. I really can’t see anything!"
I smile, glad they can’t see my grin, and think to myself, "Well, you did book this tour called Dialogue in the Dark? What were you expecting?"
As the welcome host informs me, everyone is now standing with me in this dark space. I introduce myself, reassure them that they are in good hands with me as their blind tour guide, and pose this question: "In a word, tell me how you are feeling right now?" A few people will say "curious." Others might comment "nervous," but the majority of visitors use a synonym for terrified!
Uncertainty Is the Challenge
Before I open the sliding door to lead my group of visitors through the exhibition, I know that this is the most frightening part of the experience; it is the fear of the unknown. Every sighted group is confronted by the immediate challenge of trusting themselves in a world without sight. What will they be expected to do? How will they even take their first step into the challenge?
This is when I take a moment to explain our reversal of roles and how I will guide them safely with my voice as they explore using their cane, their hands, and their other senses to "see" from a different perspective. In short, the visitors begin the challenge of total darkness by letting go of fear and moving slowly with trust.
True Dialogue in the Dark
For the next hour, we experience the Dialogue in the Dark. We explore as a group, working out the iconic places of Melbourne by the sounds, the various textures and scents, and perhaps, above all, my group gains a different perspective through the open conversations that help each person to become more relaxed and confident in the dark.
Visitors are unaware that I am not using a white cane, and that as one of the 13 tour guides, I was trained to lead the tours by walking backwards in the dark to enable me to project my voice to the front of the group.
Like any new skill that is learned, this was a challenge for the tour guides too! But we mastered the skill and dart about in the dark when we need to dash in front or gather up our groups to lead them safely to the next point of interest—following our voices and being receptive to our senses.
The most rewarding part of being a tour guide for me is witnessing the transforming effect it has on people as they consider just how much they have gained by coming through the exhibition. There is an opportunity near the end of each tour where the guides sit with our visitors in the dark and share a deeper level of communication.
It is here that visitors are encouraged to ask questions and to share what they feel they have gained by being in the shoes of a person without sight. Being fully immersed in this unique experience transforms people’s perspectives in only one hour. "It’s opened my eyes…I’m not so scared…it’s amazing!"
Training in Flexibility
There was a saying we learned during our intensive training by the master trainers from Germany who designed the original Dialogue in the Dark: "Consider your challenge right now as another opportunity in flexibility training!"
We learned that to be a tour guide, we were not simply leading people through a darkened space that we had to navigate both backwards and forwards, "no, as tour guides, you also have to be highly creative and flexible, an ambassador for the blind, a counselor who is aware of people’s feelings and emotions and educators of social inclusion" (Daniela Dimitrova, Director of Dark Operations, Dialogue Social Enterprise).
Thanks to people like Karen Hayes, CEO of Guide Dogs Victoria (GDV), and her dedicated team and Guide Dogs Australia who held their vision of the possible, Dialogue in the Dark™ Melbourne is an Australian first! Launched in June 2017, the exhibition is now operating in the 41st country in partnership with Dialogue Social Enterprise.
Quoted in a media release, Karen Hayes said, "This is a wonderful opportunity for GDV to be able to offer meaningful job and social inclusion opportunities for people who are blind or have low vision, and ultimately, for the sighted community to really take a walk in the shoes of someone with vision impairment."
Radio National Interview
Although I am not allowed to give the game away by describing what visitors to the exhibition will encounter in the dark (apart from overcoming their fears), I am sharing a radio interview that Karen Hayes and I did on ABC Radio National with Patricia Karvalis. We talk about our roles and insights into the Melbourne exhibition and share how visitors are gaining a whole new appreciation to what it means to live independently with a visual disability.
Join the Conversation
Do you have an experience of Dialogue in the Dark in your state or country? Would you like to ask me a question about my role as a blind tour guide? We are looking forward to having a dialogue with you! Please leave your comments or questions here.