Dialog in the Dark: An Interview with Agnes Austria-Correia
Dialog in the Dark is an awareness-raising social franchising company, offering exhibitions and business training in total darkness and creating jobs for blind, disabled, and disadvantaged people worldwide. The Dialog exhibition uses blind and visually impaired guides to lead small groups of visitors through a series of darkened galleries that replicate everyday experiences. Without familiar sight clues, visitors learn to "see" in a completely new and different way by using their non-visual senses. It also offers the public an experience that can change mindsets about disability and diversity while increasing tolerance. Over six million visitors from 24 countries have experienced the exhibition, giving jobs to over 5,000 blind people jobs since opening in 1988.
How Dialog in the Dark Began
The founder of this unique sensory experience is Andreas Heinecke, Ph.D., former Vice Director of Germany's Foundation for the Blind and winner of many awards, including the 1998 Stevie Wonder Vision Award and the 2007 Outstanding Global Social Entrepreneur Award by the Schwab Foundation.
Andreas has always been fascinated by exploring possible "role reversals" to engage people who are sighted and who are blind in such a way that their mutual interests would not be impaired by pity, insecurity, or prejudice. His solution: "Let blind and sighted people meet together in the dark, temporarily reverse roles, and explore new experiences and possibilities together."
"I think these exhibitions have provided a dramatic change of perspective," said Andreas, "challenging our skills and perceptions toward human diversity."
Moving About in Darkness: Agnes's Angst
"It all felt so strange at first," said Agnes Austria-Correia of Premier Exhibitions in Atlanta, GA, Director of Visitor Services, Dialog in the Dark, US. One of her first tasks as Director was interviewing 130 potential guides with severe vision loss at the Center for the Visually Impaired in Atlanta. Seventy people were selected and trained as guides for the Dialog exhibition.
"I'd never experienced moving around in complete and total darkness. Most of us don't know what it's like to be unable to see where we're going, or what it feels like to be guided by a person who is either totally blind or has significant vision loss."
"I told my blind guide that I couldn't possibly go in there without my glasses!" said Agnes when she was first introduced to Dialog's darkened galleries. "Why not?" asked her guide. "It's completely dark. You can't see anything anyway!"
"Oh, right!" Agnes replied, laughing at what she'd just said. The reason? Agnes is married to Anisio Correia, Vice-President of Programs at the Center for the Visually Impaired. Anisio is totally blind.
The Dialog in the Dark Experience: Exploring the Sensory World Together
The Immersion Gallery
The initial introduction to Dialog in the Dark takes place in the "Immersion Gallery," where visitors experience lighting that gradually dims to total darkness.
Next, visitors are assembled into small groups of no more than ten people. They meet (but are unable to see) their guide, and each visitor is given a white mobility cane to help with navigating through the exhibit.
"My initial reaction was an overwhelming awareness that my brain was not registering anything that made sense to me because I couldn't rely on my sight," says Agnes. "Because of this, visitors soon learn to listen very carefully to the information given to them by their visually impaired guide. It's interesting to see how visitors gradually create bonds with their guides and other group members. They look out for one another, making sure everyone stays together and no one gets lost!"
The Park Environment
Throughout the exhibit's range of environments, visitors are bombarded with unfamiliar—or perhaps previously ignored—sensory clues. When entering the "park" environment, for example, visitors can hear birds chirping and people talking and moving about; they can also feel grass, dirt paths, and wood chips underfoot.
The Market and Seaside Environment
Leaving the park, visitors next enter the "market" environment, in which they can explore and identify a variety of foods for making a salad or the next day's breakfast. Adjoining the market is a "seaside" environment, in which visitors can sit for a moment and experience the illusion of heading out to sea.
The City Street Environment
Next, visitors walk a short distance into a busy "city street" environment. "It's here that most visitors feel the need to protect their bodies and make full use of their canes," Agnes observes. "The street is alive with a cacophony of sounds, textures underfoot, smells, and temperature changes. Visitors are happy to reach the other side of the street in one piece!"
A Café Visit
The "café" environment provides respite and relief, even when visitors have to think carefully about what to order, where to sit, how to identify their coins and bills — and how to tactually double-check their change!
Sharing Reactions and Experiences
At the conclusion of these sensory experiences, visitors are invited to share their reactions, feelings, and prior assumptions. As Agnes notes, "Visitors often hesitate to say good-bye to their guides, many of whom they've come to appreciate and respect. By this time, the small groups are usually on first-name terms and are no longer strangers. Visitors have helped each other through a range of challenging and fascinating sensory experiences and learned a lot more about what it means to experience life without sight. There's a sense of empathy and trust in their newfound knowledge. Most visitors say good-bye to their guides with genuine affection, admiration – and reluctance!"
"You should see the reactions!" Agnes exclaims. "Sighted people are exploring familiar but now utterly unfamiliar environments, while blind people offer them security and a sense of orientation in a world without visual reinforcements. Their conversations are amazing. They discover new ways of working together and appreciating beauty from different perspectives, conveyed through touch, textures, and aromas. New empathy evolves as new discoveries and new perceptions emerge. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery said in The Little Prince, 'What is essential is invisible to the eye.'"
Agnes also likes to share the following comments from international journalists who have shared the Dialog in the Dark experience:
"This is a unique platform for expanding perspectives and the beginning of a Dialog that goes way beyond stereotypes and conventional thinking."
"Seeing doesn't protect you from blindness."
"Let us remember that without light the world is not lifeless, hopeless or joyless but merely a different world."
"We go into total darkness here with only four senses. Hands, learning to see."
"The experience itself lasts one hour but the effects last a lifetime."
The Growing Impact of Dialog in the Dark
"There's something about this experience that brings out the best in all participants—both visitors and guides," says Agnes. "Stereotypes and biases about disability, dependency, and discrimination dissolve — or at least are seriously questioned—in the wonder of new insights and new bondings. It's an amazing series of revelations. And it's happening all over the world. The impact is increasing and getting bigger all the time."
"As one of the guides said, 'For some of us, it's the first time we've felt on equal footing with a sighted person. As a result of this shared experience, people seem to develop a new respect for us, and that's a very good feeling!'"
"According to many of my enthusiastic participants, Dialog in the Dark is 'the greatest exhibition you'll never see.' It's a lot of fun too, but—and this is much more important—it's an utterly amazing way to appreciate the strengths of all our other senses without relying on sight! Needless to say, that often-negative catchphrase about 'the blind leading the blind' has now taken on a far different—and far more positive—meaning."