My Dialogue in the Dark Experience
It’s a bright Saturday in Manila when Andreas Heinecke visited Manila to speak about his social initiative, Dialogue in the Dark—a juxtaposition, considering Dialogue in the Dark was conceived to build connections between the seeing and the blind communities. Its core activity requires people to enter a completely blacked-out space, trusting themselves to blind guides to understand the world that non-seeing people navigate.
Andreas Heinecke established Dialogue in the Dark in 1988 to raise awareness for blindness and the sight impaired. Since then, Dialogue in the Dark has been presented in over 25 countries worldwide, providing work for over 6,000 sight-impaired people. Heinecke has been bringing his team to Manila since 2014 to hold workshops for various groups, in the hopes that the role-reversal activity will continue to raise awareness and I was lucky enough to be invited as one of the participants.
“Understanding perspectives,” Heinecke shares, before orienting the group about the activity. “—is important in so many aspects of life. It raises empathy, encourages trust.”
The group is then led into a room that has been completely darkened. The darkness is complete—no light breaks through or reflects. It heightens your anxiety. Without communication, you have no idea who is next to you. Earning and gaining trust becomes crucial. In this dark space, participants are led through several activities: finding seats, arranging themselves around a table, pouring water, sharing food, and playing a few games. There is nothing hard about these activities seeing people do every day but that blind people struggle to.
One task is to write a poem with each participant choosing the next word. In this activity, active listening is stressed, an extra challenge when you may not be sure who will speak next. Without the benefit of sight, judging body language is impossible. The last task is about exercising intuition—the group is asked to count to thirty by gauging the moment in which one feel’s it is their turn to speak. If people accidentally interrupt each other, the whole group must start over. After a few false starts, we make it to thirty.
Returning to the light is a shock and relief to the senses. But the blind do not normally regain their vision and going through this experience gave me a few insights:
First, blind people deal a lot with surprise. The stimulating world we live in pushes them to use their other senses to compensate for what is missing. But they cannot see what is hot or sharp, or what everyone may be reacting to. They experience it with their other senses and so communication and listening become very important.
Second, as an exercise in uncertainty, trust is tantamount. Those who choose to take leadership roles is taking on a lot of responsibility despite going through the same amount of anxiety and uncertainty.
Finally, there are moments when you will be forced to confront your fears and they will always be uncomfortable and scary at first. But if you have people around you who you trust and reach out to, what is uncomfortable and scary at first will slowly disappear.
But what may be insightful to us is a blind person’s reality. Activities like these may aim to raise awareness in a moment but the lessons must last and permeate our mindsets. These lessons influence how we may approach people at work who are differently abled or affect how we teach empathy to our children and it is important that we hang on to what will further inclusiveness and acceptance in our society.