Note: This article was first published by, and for, Social Entrepreneurship Forum: http://www.seforum.sg.
You enter fearless, with seven others, confident that darkness alone poses little threat and challenge. As you venture deeper into the exhibition, with only a white cane and a gentle voice guiding you to “come towards my voice”, new thoughts surface: Is this what it truly feels like to be blind? Can I truly experience the world without sight?
I won’t give the game away: Visit Dialogue in the Dark Singapore and “see” for yourself. The permanent exhibition, a franchise of Dialogue Social Enterprise, is the world’s first Dialogue in the Dark exhibition housed in an educational facility, Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
Established with the dual aim of promoting inclusion and empathy for the visually-impaired as well as providing viable employment opportunities for them, Dialogue in the Dark (DiD) works on a simple, but powerful concept: Visitors are led by partially or fully-blind guides through completely darkened rooms where they are confronted with everyday situations, like crossing a street and shopping for groceries, without seeing anything.
Since October 2009, DiD Singapore has hosted about 5000 visitors (and counting), many of whom have walked away humbled and inspired.
“We want to change mindsets. We want to promote empathy, and not sympathy, for the visually-impaired,” explained Mr Glen Ng, Project Manager, DiD. “Many participants are initially disoriented in the dark. As they venture out of their comfort zone, they become very appreciative of the support and assurance given by the guides.”
Being placed in the care of a blind person has made participants more empathetic and receptive to the strengths of those often seen as “weak” by society. The challenge of navigating in the dark itself enables sighted participants to better understand the challenges faced by the visually-impaired and assist someone they see in the streets.
“I think DiD helps to debunk some of the common perceptions that we have about the disabled,” said DiD participant Siti Nor Farah. “We often think that they are dependent on other people; that they are helpless, when actually they can do things on their own and help others as well.”
Lee Lee is one such capable guide. She feels that DiD has been a “dream come true”.
Due to her visual impairment, there were very few job opportunities available for her. A former telephone operator, Lee Lee felt that such employment was both insecure – given the rise of automation in call centres – and inadequate as a platform for her to develop her competencies in communication and management. At DiD, Lee Lee is both a guide and the facilitator of DiD’s Executive Programme.
The Executive Workshop is targeted at DiD visitors who are senior management and sets them a series of tasks to perform in total darkness.
“In the darkness, everyone is working on an equal platform, so it is excellent for leadership training and team building,” said Lee Lee.
“And at the end of the day, executives realize that the facilitator is a visually-impaired person. This makes them aware of how competent we are in a wide range of tasks.”
The guiding experience itself has been an effective platform for the visually impaired to hone their professional skills and seek gainful employment in other industries. “As a guide, you have to adapt your communication strategies dependent on the age and personality of the group,” Lee Lee shares, “And you have to do so in a relatively short period of time – it is a real challenge but a very good learning experience.”
Immersed in complete darkness, participants have to make full use of their other senses to both navigate and appreciate the world around them. Lee Lee, a little amused, said: “Adults tend to be very scared so I have to encourage them and get them to be more comfortable in the darkness. In comparison, children tend to be more playful, so I encourage them to take responsibility for themselves and their friends!”
The tour is rounded up with an active listening and reflection session, where participants are given the opportunity to share their experience with their guide. Such opportunities for frank and open discussion between the sighted and non-sighted people are rare and welcome in Singapore.
In that regard, DiD is also especially suitable for national education programmes that focus on inclusion, equality and racial harmony. One of the DiD Singapore’s future plans is to bring more students to the exhibition and tie the tour together with civic education classes and community service programmes.
I walked away knowing what it meant to have my other four senses sharpened and deeply reflective.
As Mr. Jared Tham, my fellow DiD tourist, sums it up: “DiD fills an important niche because all too often people in the street know in their head what the situation is, but until they experience it for themselves, they won’t understand it in their heart.”For more information, check out http://www.dialogueinthedark.com.sg or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit them at Ngee Ann Polytechnic Block 5, #01-03 535 Clementi Road, Singapore 599489. DiD opens from 9am to 6pm daily.