If you stand outside of the Dialog Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, you’ll see this image:
There’s nothing to see inside. Truly — nothing.
This is the Dialog Museum where guests participate in “Dialog in Darkness;” an experience in what it’s like to be blind.
For 90 minutes, I walked through everyday life in complete darkness. I had a cane, like a blind person. And a guide (more fortunately than a blind person). It tested my merit in navigating dense darkness as our group of five was guided through different life scenarios without the advantage of sight.
As simple as it sounds, our first task was how to use a cane. You make it an extension of your arm, feeling your way with this stick as much as we did by tracing our hands along a wall to stay on path and feel our way through the rooms and doorways.
Our guide, Benjamin, had to guide us as we blindly stepped into new room experiences. “Come toward my voice,” he said often. “Tell me what you’re feeling. Where are you?”
We ran our hands over wood: a wooden bridge railing. Then, something tall and bumpy: a tree. We ran our hands across bamboo plants and felt our feet plunge into squishy peat.
“Where are you?” Benjamin asked.
Then a market. A ship dock. A city street. A movie theater, and a train station. We tapped our canes through all of the paths, running our hands along surfaces, and feeling for clues as to where we might be. We followed Benjamin’s voice through several settings, wondering how he knew his way so well.
Then we ended in a cafe where Benjamin told us what was on display for sale; what we might purchase. We had to listen closely. Then we repeated our orders to him and he served us. Then took our money, and sightlessly made change.
Benjamin directed us to the “cafe’s” benches and table. Some of us had to pour our drinks, or punch straws into Capri Sun pouch drinks.
We sat, and talked, and Benjamin debriefed us on the experience we’d just had.
We’d learned so much. Like how the bumps and grooves at intersections helped blind people, in addition to the sound of the crosswalk signals. The straight grooves guide them forward. The bumps tell them that they can go to the right or left now.
The darkness experience had moved us. True to cliche, it changed us.
I heard Dee, a soldier from Washington, D.C., crying on the bench next to me. “I’m a hugger,” she told Benjamin. “When we get out into the lobby, I want to give you a hug.”
“I don’t go past these walls,” Benjamin said. “I’ve gotten to know all of you througb your voices and your reactions and words in this unfamiliar experience. If we saw each other, you’d make a first impression based on what you’d discern through that visual first impression. But here, I know you through your voice. If I meet you again in the future, I’ll probably remember you through your voice, if not your name.
Besides, it’s not fair to let you see me. I’ll never see you.”
Just as Benjamin had told us in the dark cafe, he knew us by our presence there in the dark. That was his world. He was originally a teacher in Zimbabwe before disease took his sight. When he couldn’t perform that job anymore, he pursued other possibilities and then discovered the Dialog Museum in Frankfurt.
It was, in his description, “love at first sight.” A natural fit where Benjamin and the Dialog Museum could impact the world — boldly, and blindly.
I certainly see things differently now.
Have you ever experienced sensory deprivation like this?