Mid-Atlantic Regional Group 

Blinded Veterans Association

www.margbva.org

 

FINDING SIGHT IN THE DARKNESS - Short Story

NICKY BLACKBURN, THE JERUSALEM POST

Sep. 2, 2004

I have never really liked the dark. As we walked into the seemingly pitch black nothingness of the Dialogue in the Dark exhibition at the Israel Children's Museum in Holon, I felt my heart unexpectedly lurch. The experience was supposed to last 90 minutes, but with each uncertain step I took into that heavy blanket of darkness with my guide stick before me, I began to worry that halfway through I would embarrass myself completely and start yelling &;Turn on the lights!&; A voice called out to us in the darkness and we followed the sound. It belonged to our guide, Talia Elazar, a gentle and intelligent woman who has been blind since birth. &;We are going to explore seven different places in daily life,&; her dislocated voice informed us from somewhere to my left. &;Now follow me.&; The Dialogue in the Dark exhibition, which is partly funded by Bezeq Telecommunications, the Municipality of Holon, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Rich Foundation, opened on July 15, and will close at the end of January next year.

The idea behind this seven-room exhibit, which takes place entirely in the dark, is to explore the world of the blind, and to have an opportunity to experience what they go through every day of their lives. The idea for the exhibition came from Andreas Heinecke, a German radio journalist, who has a PhD in philosophy. During his journalist career, Heinecke was asked to train a blind journalist for a job at the radio station. He worked with the trainee for a year and a half and during this time became fascinated with what life was like for a blind person. He continued to explore the subject, and nearly 15 years ago decided to set up an exhibition that would help other people discover life in the dark. Since the first exhibition opened, Dialogue in the Dark has been shown in more than 100 cities around the world, including Mexico City and Tokyo, and has been visited by over three million people. In Hamburg, the show has been running for five years. &;It's not just an exhibition about the blind, but about all people who are different,&; says Gil Omer, the general manager of the Holon museum. He relates his own experiences the first time he took part in the show in Hamburg last year.

&;Afterwards I was standing in the hotel and I heard a voice behind me. When I turned I saw a person in a wheelchair. I sat down and looked around. I thought, 'I must feel what this person is feeling,'&; Omer says. &;As I sat there, I realized that the light switches were all too high, and at that moment it occurred to me that this exhibition is teaching you the ability to feel and to empathize with everyone. It teaches you to put yourself into their shoes.&; Certainly, the response has been good. Since its doors opened, more than 3,000 people have visited the exhibition.

Already there are two full books of comments from visitors, commending the exhibition. As we spoke, Omer received a letter from one participant who wrote to thank him for an &;unforgettable experience.&; &;It seemed,&; the letter said, &;that we came out of the exhibition different people.

We were smarter, more sensitive, and richer inside than we had been before. There are very few times in life when you learn such an important lesson as we did from our excellent guide.&;

&;People get very excited,&; admits Omer. &;It changes their lives. People are so touched that they don't want to leave. The good thing is that it doesn't come from the sad side of life, but from the fun side. People come out and say: ‘Wow, that was great.'&;

BACK IN the darkness, Elazar, a retired Hebrew teacher, had just brought us into our first room. There was the sound of running water, he air felt fresh and cool, and the noise of crickets and frogs was deafening. After walking into a tree, I began to get my bearings, and the fear evaporated.

We used our canes to feel the floor, and our hands to touch the walls, trees and surfaces. On one wall, a small waterfall trickled down. Each room in the show is a separate environment. In one room, for exle, we were beside the sea, and experienced a short boat ride. We could even feel the pull of the water with our canes. In another, we were in a market and could touch and smell all the fruit and vegetables – not such a nice experience for us, as it was Saturday and the produce had begun to go off. In another room we found ourselves in a busy street, and Elazar guided us across the road. We stopped for a while in one room to listen to music, and then finally we reached a cafe, where we bought drinks and sat down and talked - still in the darkness. As we entered the room there was a burst of laughter and chatter from the group that had come in before us. It was strangely disorienting. There was also the weird awareness that if you put your drink down for a moment, you might not find it again. There were several surprises for me in the exhibition, but perhaps the biggest was how, even without sight, I built up such a clear visual picture in my head of the rooms we visited. It is not the dark I remember, but the things that I found, heard and touched.

The initial frustration at not being able to see my environment began to disappear as soon as I relied on my other senses. Things really do feel the way they look, and they are beautiful even if you cannot see them. The sea, for exle, is still a calm and relaxing place to visit, even if you cannot watch the waves or see the color of the sea changing with the weather. &;The first time I heard about this show, I was very suspicious,&; admits Elazar, who was born in Iran and came to Israel when she was 10 years old. &;I was not sure that people would get much out of it. The response, however, has been amazing. People have had such a positive experience, and it's also been very good for me too.&;

Elazar, who is married, lives in Holon. The only thing she can see is light and dark. She can imagine pictures, faces, the countryside, and she can feel textures and shapes, but she has never seen color. In the exhibition, Elazar moves about confidently and comfortably, guiding visitors up and down stairs, through doors and past numerous obstacles.

&;Everyone's reaction is different,&; says Elazar. &;Yesterday a woman asked me if I was wearing a special pair of glasses because I always knew where we were, who was next to me, and who had still not seen a particular feature of the exhibition. In the bar, people ask me so many questions that I realize they know nothing about what it is like to be blind.&;

There are 34 guides working at the exhibition, between the ages of 20 and 60, and Omer says that many of them find the experience highly rewarding. &;For the first time they are the ones leading us, rather than us leading them,&; he says. &;It is very important for them and makes them stronger.

They learn a lot from the people they meet. Our visitors ask hard questions, but this dialogue is very important.&; The show is designed for children over the age of eight. Some changes were made to adapt the exhibition to the Israeli market. The sound is louder and more exciting, for instance, while the market stall offers a richer experience than in other locations around the world. Heinecke is now considering opening new exhibitions that will help visitors enter the world of the deaf, or the physically disabled. &;One of the questions I am always asked is how to help a blind person, &;says Elazar.

&;What's the problem? When you meet someone who is blind, you say: 'May I help you?' If they want your help, they will ask for it. If they don't, they won't. This exhibition is a success. It helps people see things more clearly than before, and encourages them to treat the blind normally.&;

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