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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dialog in the Dark: opening eyes to a life without sight

Special to The Japan Times

I've wondered what it's like to be blind since I read a book when I was 8 years old about a boy who lost his sight in an accident. I remember trying to share the boy's experience by walking down the street with my eyes closed, but that didn't really work, because I peeked every time the going got rough.

Guides for Dialog in the Dark
Opening eyes: Guides (from left) for Dialog in the Dark, now in Tokyo's Jingumae neighborhood, Takehito Ito, Sachiko Sone and Michinori Kinoshita ALICE GORDENKER PHOTO

So I'm thrilled, many decades later, to have found Dialog in the Dark, a 90-minute program that allows sighted people to experience the everyday world of the blind. Launched in 1989 in Germany and billed as "social entertainment," the concept has spread to more than 150 cities in 25 countries, with the dual goals of changing mind sets on disability and creating jobs for the visually disabled.

Visitors move in complete darkness through a series of interactive galleries, led by visually disabled guides who help visitors learn to "see" in the dark using their other senses. The idea is that, through firsthand experience in a world without vision, sighted people will gain understanding and respect for people with disabilities. Being in a group is an integral part of the experience, as it encourages visitors to help one another and interact in new ways.

In Japan, Dialog in the Dark has been offered on and off since 1999, attracting a total of 36,000 visitors to short-term runs in temporary venues. In each case, tickets sold out completely.

"Dialog in the Dark is an opportunity to communicate with others, and in an entirely new way. That is something that Japanese people today seem to crave," says Shinsuke Kanai, president of Dialog in the Dark Japan. "Given the success of the initial exhibitions, we wanted to find one place where we could offer that experience on a long-term basis."

In late March, I was one of the first visitors to Dialog in the Dark's new location in Tokyo's Jingumae neighborhood, about a 10-minute walk from Gaienmae Station on the Ginza Line. Given how long I'd waited for the experience, I'm pleased to say it didn't disappoint.

I don't want to give things away by describing what went on in the dark there, because a big part of the Dialog in the Dark experience is personal discovery. But I will say that we moved through a variety of everyday experiences, many specific to Japan, that seemed entirely novel when undertaken without sight.

Guiding my group was Takehito Ito, a 30-year-old part-time instructor of international political economics at Aoyama Gakuin University who works at Dialog in the Dark two to three days a week.

"For me, guiding people through the dark is first and foremost an opportunity to work on my own communication skills," Ito says. "I'm constantly thinking about how I might say things differently as I guide people, and how what I say might change their experience."

It's also interesting, he says, to observe people's reactions.

"Visitors often get a huge sense of satisfaction from being able to complete even simple tasks without vision, which is of course what we blind people do every day without even thinking about it," he says. "Their reactions encourage me to take a fresh look at myself and my abilities."

Asked if he has noticed patterns in how people react, Ito says it's difficult to generalize because everyone reacts differently. "But children tend to adjust very quickly to being in the dark," he says. "And women, in general, seem to be quicker to adapt than men. It's interesting to think why that might be."

I had often heard that loss of any one of the five senses makes the others sharper. I don't think my hearing got any better during my brief sojourn in the dark, but I did come to realize, through moving about without vision, how I unconsciously use sound every day to orient myself in space. I was surprised, for example, how accurately I could pinpoint others' location in the dark just from the direction of their voices.

I also realized how much I, as a non-native speaker of Japanese, rely on visual cues to compensate for my deficiencies in the language. At one point I needed to communicate something quickly to my group, but didn't know the exact word in Japanese. If we had been able to see each other, I would have communicated with vague wording and a gesture, and then visually checked their faces to confirm they'd understood. In the dark, I had to work harder to communicate with only words.

As interesting as it was, I understand that my brief time in the dark afforded only a tiny glimpse into the world of the blind. We were under expert supervision in a controlled environment. We didn't have to go shopping, read a 50-page report or change trains at Shinjuku, tasks that would still seem daunting to me without vision.

Even so, Dialog in the Dark is a real eye-opener.

When and where

Are reservations required? Yes. Reservations can be made only online at www.dialoginthedark.com (Japanese only; the reservation page can only be viewed on Internet Explorer.)

Who can't participate? Anyone who can't speak Japanese; children under 6; elementary-school children, unless accompanied by a parent; pregnant women; anyone who is intoxicated; people with emotional disorders, a history of panic attacks or fear of the dark; anyone with a hearing impairment or injury that affects everyday functions

What does it cost? Prices vary by time and date: ¥4,000-¥8,000 for adults; ¥2,800-¥5,600 for middle, high school and university students; and ¥2,000- ¥4,000 for elementary school students

When is it open? Every day except Tuesdays; weekdays from noon to 7:20 p.m.; Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 10 a.m. to 7:20 p.m. There is a special schedule during Golden Week (see the Web site for details).

Where do I go? Raysum Building B1, Jingumae 2-8-2, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; the nearest station is Gaienmae on the Ginza Line.

For more information, call (03) 3479-9683.

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