I'm able to see the sunlight bring out the bronze glow from my 2-year old's curly hair. I'm able to see my 6-year old's face light up as I start a story without her asking. I'm able to watch my kids play, run, cry, grow. I have the gift of sight. And he doesn't.
I had the opportunity to visit the Dialogue in the Dark exhibition recently, and it was mind-blowing. I would have said it was an eye opener but that would have been distasteful, given the circumstances.
Before my visit to Dialogue in the Dark, I read up a little about it to try to have a feel of what I was to expect. Nothing I read prepared me for what I experienced.
Our group of 3 made small talk with polite smiles but when we were handed our white canes, the atmosphere changed drastically. The cane wasn't a prop. It wasn't something given to us just to make the experience seem more real. Unlike 3D glasses that help you see better in a 3D movie, the cane was something that we grasped tightly for our own survival.
The Dialogue in the Dark website explains the concept very gently to readers, about how a tour will allow visitors to experience things that they are used to, without using their sight. Easy peasy, I'll just close my eyes and experience it now by moving around my house, right? Wrong. Very wrong. Could not be more wrong.
First of all, it's dark. It's pitch dark. It's so dark you can't see your shoes. It's so dark you can't see your white cane. It's so dark, you can't see anything. You know how when you close your eyes in the sun and you can still see bits of red beneath your eyelids? Not even that. It's black. Entirely black.
And scary. Oh my, it is scary indeed. Fear grips you the moment you walk in. Fear of the unknown. Fear of falling. Fear of not making it through. But you're not left to bump into things on your own, no, it's not a maze, nor a challenge.
You're met at the entrance of darkness by your guide. By the way, all the guides within Dialogue in the Dark are blind. And in the room (we're told it's about the size of 3 lecture theatres), they are completely comfortable, and we are entirely dependant on them. We were told that the tour was to last an hour but within my first 2 minutes I was already panicking - was I really able to last an hour? An hour is an extremely long time to be in a position of fear. I truly contemplated screaming and asking to be let out, pronto.
But our guide was chirpy and very approachable, and the 3 of us trusted her immediately and literally clung on to every word she said as she gently guided us through. With our cane in one hand, and our other hand on the walls, we inched our way through by following her reassuring voice.
The aim of the tour is not to make you climb, crawl, jump, hula hoop or run through an obstacle course while blindfolded. It's to make you experience everyday situations without being able to see. Our guide brought us to a park, and we knew it was a park because we could feel the grass, the gravel, the plants. Our first milestone? We made it to a bench to sit with our guide. Something that would have taken me 3 minutes to do on a regular day in the sun, took me 10 minutes without the use of my sight. And as I sat there in complete darkness, I started to cry.
I cried for those who were able to hear the birds chirping in the park, but not able to see them. For those who are able to feel the cool grass, but not able to see it. For mums who give birth to their babies but are not able to see them. I cried because I was there in a safe, pretend environment, knowing that in an hour, I would be able to see again and live normally, but there were people to whom living in the dark was normal. The good thing about crying in there is that nobody can see you, and you also don't have to worry about your tears obstructing your vision, because remember, it's complete darkness.
We ventured around the park a little, and then from there, we set off to the Singapore River and boarded a boat. One of those river cruise like kind of things. And I sat there, I couldn't help but think how alone I would feel in a world of complete darkness. I began to question how I would motivate myself to go through each day because sitting there on that boat and feeling it move and hearing the engine vibrate but not being able to see the sights was very very depressing.
Next we went to town and went shopping at a supermarket, and tried to make out the fruits and vegetables on display. And we crossed a traffic light at a busy road. Despite knowing that it wasn't a real one, we all quickened our pace when the escalated traffic light warning chrip came on.
Our tour ended at a cafe. A real cafe. With real food. And real drinks. And a real person manning it. A blind person. Our guide led us to the sofa were we struggled to push our straws into the little aluminium barrier of our packet drinks, and open our cookie packs, and throw our trash into the bins. Such simple things that we do without a second thought, right?
There we were, 3 sighted people in a completely dark world, chatting with our visually handicapped guide. In there, we were the same. In there, she got us from point A to point B. In there, she held our hand and told us to follow her voice. In there, we knew that we could always trust her to tell us what to do next, and that she would save us if we bumped into walls or couldn't get off a boat on a river. In there, we were completely reliant on her. But in the real world, who's out there looking out for her? Who tells her, and all like her, when their buses arrive? Or how to choose their clothes? Or where it's safe to sit? Or to guide them away from the edge of pavements with no barriers?
Our guide was not born blind. She shared that she was born premature though, and as a newborn, she was placed under the light and that the nurses did not cover her eyes. It was that that caused her to lose her sight. And this was when I bawled. How often do we take our gifts for granted? And how easily it can be taken away from someone just by a mistake, and by a mistake made by another?
It was probably the most honest chat I've had with a complete stranger ever. Outside, the same 15 minutes with a stranger would probably have been more superficial. But in there, where I knew that no one could see me, and I couldn't see anyone, I felt strangely safe to bear myself with raw honesty.
She told us that she was lucky because she was given an education, and that there were others who weren't as fortunate, so she counted her lucky stars. She told us that she was grateful for people who helped her at bus stops. She told us that it's very easy for a blind person to be disoriented and they often can't walk in a straight line. She told us all these things matter-of-factly without any bitterness or anger. I felt like I was talking to an everyday hero.
The chat at the cafe marked the end of our tour, and I was surprisingly upset that it had ended. At the start, I couldn't wait for it to end. I just wanted to get out and be back in the world I was familiar with.
At the end of the tour, I just had to hug our guide and thank her profusely. She had helped me see things in a different light. But my heart felt heavy for this kind, funny woman with the good heart, as she went back to work in that big dark room and I headed back to my world of colours. Now, above everything else, I am grateful, eternally grateful, for my sight.
I strongly recommend this for those of us who want to encourage empathy, not just for the blind, but for anyone who might be a little different for it is when we ourselves are thrown into an unfamiliar setting, that we learn to be kinder to others.
Dialogue in the Dark is located at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Block 5, #01-03, Singapore 599489, and completely run by Ngee Ann students as part of their internship programme. Booking for visits can be made here. It costs $20 for adults and $12 for students. The minimum age is 9 though they allow children in from the age of 7 if they are accompanied by adults. Bear in mind though that it can be scary, even for adults, and that your instinct of being able to protect your kids will be taken from you because you too will not be able to see.