More Than Sight: Embodying Blindness at Dialogue in the Dark
I took my glasses off. I wouldn’t be needing them. I picked up the white cane and practiced tracing shoulder-width arcs on the ground in front of me. Previously imperceptible bumps in the carpet echoed along the aluminium, making tactile mountains out of molehills. The cane was longer than I expected. I drew it closer to my body, retracting the new limb that stretched uncomfortably into public space. For a moment, I was still sighted. Then, gripping the cane in my right hand and the smooth metal railing in my left, I walked along a corridor and entered the darkness.
Thanks to Bird Box, the record-breaking Netflix movie, social experiments mimicking blindness are trending. The #BirdBoxChallenge, where participants film themselves doing everyday things blindfolded, plays on the perceived danger of living without sight. That the challenges are then shared on social media, relies on the perceived entertainment of appearing blind.
My simulated experience of blindness occurred pre-Bird Box. I attended Dialogue in the Dark as part of my PhD research exploring the sensory perception of dress and the experience of people with low vision or blindness. Dialogue in the Dark is a social enterprise employing guides with visual impairments to lead people in an immersive experience of blindness. Founded by Andreas Heinecke in 1988 in Germany, over 10,000 guides have been employed in 42 countries, with my experience taking place in Melbourne, Australia. Lasting just over an hour, I was led through a simulation of everyday experiences: a park, football stadium, market, busy traffic intersection, café, and home. Each setting was populated with familiar objects, sounds, and smells. Although few people with low vision experience complete darkness, my dependence on sight required its complete removal to achieve the enterprise’s goal of empathy through experience.
Like many people, I fear losing my sight. It’s no surprise that the allegories of popular culture rely on tropes of blindness to depict and create fear. In primary school, my fourth-grade teacher led us around the school playground blindfolded; twenty-four students clinging to a rope. After an elbow in the back, I imagined the line of students falling like dominos. It was an unsuccessful activity in creating empathy; I was only concerned that I did not fall. I strained to see through the blindfold. At Dialogue in the Dark, there were no glimpses of the ground when peeking down, no pixels of light through the woven fibers. No blindfolds were needed because there was absolute darkness, the absence or complete absorption of light. The initial blackness dominated my sensory experience, my eyes seeing stars, small fireworks of synapses adjusting to the lack of light.
“Where are you?” We called to each other while our bodies hid in the darkness. Our voices revealed our location, identity, and emotions. “Follow my voice,” the guide directed. Could I do this? Could I navigate my body successfully through space just by listening? “Stay to the left of my voice.” She tapped her cane, punctuating her words.
In ocular-centric cultures, the sense of sight observes bodies in public spaces; it has been called the civilising sense. While acknowledging variations according to context, individual, and academic argument, I am the product of a culture that values personal space. I get suspicious if someone stands close to me with no perceivable reason. Why would you sit next to me on the train if the rest of the carriage is empty? Sight preserves personal and cultural space between bodies. It makes me feel safe, my body distinguishable and distinct from another. With sight, I experience the world from a distance. I look before I touch, see who is speaking, watch where I walk, see what smells. Hearing similarly allows distance in perception, enabling our Dialogue in the Dark group to locate each other, yet (usually) maintain personal space. Touch ignores this distance in favor of contact.
I bumped into someone in front me, a stranger I met 10 minutes earlier. There were just the two of us in the group, newly blind. Throughout the tour, I repeatedly bumped into her, apologizing, ‘Sorry, sorry!’. Even when my stumbles didn’t threaten her footing, I apologized. I apologized for accidentally poking her with my cane, for brushing my fingers over her hand, for grabbing at the air and finding some part of her. I apologized for breaking the barrier that is untouchable; for touching the body of a stranger, uninvited, unknowingly.
In the darkness, my arms and hands roamed, freed from their usual gestures and position close to my body. Apart from occasional encounters with flesh, I mostly touched things: objects, structures, the walls. I noted changes in texture, shape, materiality, and temperature. Touch made an unseen world familiar, allowing me to visualize and recognize my environment. But, as sight was removed from my sensory experience, so too was my sensory, embodied experience removed from its regular environment. Although the places in Dialogue in the Dark were familiar, they were simulations. I doubt I would have embraced the experience with the same abandon had I been blindfolded and sent into the actual city. My behavior would have likely echoed the cautious and fearful movements in the school playground, concerned with my physical and social safety. Yet, at Dialogue in the Dark, freed from serious potential harm and invisible to all, I stretched out my arms to encounter the world. And in doing so, I mirrored the caricatures of people with blindness since ancient times: arms waving, head cocked to one side, gripping a cane.
It is a picture often accompanied by adjectives of ‘stumbling,’ ‘fumbling,’ and ‘groping’. In Old English, ‘to grope’ merely described ‘to touch through the hands’ or ‘to feel one’s way’ . It quickly became used (by those with sight) to refer to people who visibly depended on touch. Modern sexual connotations of ‘grope’ allude to the intimate possibilities of touch, open to corruption as well as pleasure; a carnal association that debased touch from the elevated senses of sight and hearing during the Enlightenment. It is a legacy that continues today, revealing the entanglements of language with the cultural history of the senses and the socially constructed experience of disability.
Touching clothes, without sight, was evocative. I’ve dressed in the dark before, but I reached for clothes that were familiar. I knew them, their shape, their color, their idiosyncrasies of wear. During Dialogue in the Dark, we encountered a rack of t-shirts. We felt them, held them up to our bodies, tried to guess their size, wondered of their color. I hazarded that they were plain - there was no slick of screened paint on the material - but without sight or assistive technology, we couldn’t know the visual appearance of the t-shirts.
In Melbourne, Dialogue in the Dark is located in a new shopping precinct, home to many local and international fashion retailers. It seemed ironic that having been without sight for an hour, upon returning to my familiar sensory experience I was immersed in the visually rich experience of fashion. I wondered how I would perceive all these clothes if I couldn’t see? With so many of the clothes appearing the same, would these clothes feel the same too, without print or color to differentiate cheap polyester? As a fashion trend forecaster, I experienced firsthand the increasing importance of print for mass market retailers. To maximize profit margins, fabric quality was sacrificed, with the garment redeemed by a print to make it look good. The appearance of the garment took precedence, reflecting the cultural value given to sight.
The perceived significance of sight is also reflected in fashion studies scholarship, with a common understanding of dress as visible communication. Yet, our sensory experience of clothing is far more than sight: the smell of a garment can evoke the body that once wore it; the materiality of clothing can contain aural cues that indicate gender and social status; and the feel and fit of a garment can affect us physically and emotionally. The senses perceive the body and its environment, but to focus on a specific sense overlooks what scientists are increasingly learning: that the senses do not operate in isolation from one another. It is in the entanglement of sensory perception, in the shifting values ascribed to sight, smell, touch and hearing in personal and social contexts, that we discover the multisensory experience of dress. My PhD research addresses this through learning of the dress practices of people with and without vision loss or blindness to complicate assumptions about an experience defined by a sensory function and ultimately to give value to diverse sensorial experiences of dress.
I am deeply conscious that I can never fully understand the experience of people with low vision or blindness and experiences of disability vary as wildly as any other category applied to the human body and experience. But Dialogue in the Dark illustrated my privilege as a sighted person living in a society designed to appeal and communicate through sight. My guide was wearing Vans sneakers, chosen specifically because the thin sole allowed her to feel changes underfoot to help her navigate the city. Through the material, she distinguished cobble stones from tactile markers that interrupt the pavement at each intersection. Through material, she made sense of the world. But she also chose Vans because she liked them. They fit her personal style, communicating a desired sense of fashion. Her dress choices reflected an understanding of clothing as a material mediation between our embodied, sensing self and our social and physical environment. The hashtag for Dialogue in the Dark is #morethansight, three words that similarly apply to our dressed experience.