Imagine being blind. Now imagine being blind and living in New York City.
I recently experienced “Dialogue in the Dark,” a simulated walking tour through popular areas of New York City including Central Park, Fairway supermarket, the subway and Times Square. In total darkness. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.
At first it was a bit unsettling. Armed with walking sticks, the ten in our group listened to our guide Damon, a young man from Brooklyn, who appeared to us after the lights went out. His voice was our beacon. His sense of humor kept me calm. We listened to his instructions as we moved from room to room, our sticks shuffling back and forth from 11 o’clock to one o’clock.
In “Central Park” birds chirped and water flowed from the “Bethesda fountain.” Damon told us to touch things. We felt trees, rocks. We crossed a rickety bridge, holding the railing for dear life, before exiting into the supermarket. We touched fruits and vegetables. “Garlic! Butternut squash!” we called out when Damon asked what we’d found. The packaged foods were harder to distinguish. “Is it ketchup or honey?” A few times my friend Lili and I called out for each other, reassured to hear the other’s voice, making us feel somewhat safer in our aloneness in the dark.
Maneuvering on the subway proved tricky. Steps to descend, poles to avoid, and seats to locate, while stereo sounds of people competed with the train conductor’s voice. And the “train” actually shook. We got off in “Times Square” and the noise of traffic, crowds, airplanes, and street vendors threatened to drown out Damon’s voice as he instructed us not to step off the sidewalk into oncoming traffic. Of course there were no real cars or buses, but when Damon assured us it was safe, we used our sticks to cross.
Throughout the tour we learned skills the visually impaired use everyday. Counting steps to the bus stop, folding dollar bills differently based on their amounts, and smart phone apps that scan barcodes and speak out loud the products. But most importantly, how organized you must be. Clothes, cups, keys, aspirin, gloves, paper for the printer, cereal, scissors – every single item in your home must be exactly in one place or else the chances of finding it – on your own – prove pretty slim.
The tour ended in a mock café and as the lights slowly came on, I was dumbfounded. Damon was blind. I had assumed he was wearing night vision goggles the way he maneuvered us seamlessly throughout the obstacle course. That’s when it dawned on me. While a city would seem an impossible place for the blind, Damon said that New York City’s structured grid of streets (with some exceptions) was easy to navigate because it was so organized. I couldn’t agree more.