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Would eating in the dark help Lesley Evans Ogden understand visual impairment better?

It’s silly. What bothered me the most was not being able to detect the shape, size and texture of the food at the end of my knife and fork. It’s a strange and inappropriate trivialisation of the experience of temporary blindness. But that will be my abiding memory of a meal at Dark Table, a “destination” restaurant in Vancouver, which employs blind and visually impaired servers as guides for the sighted but temporarily disabled customers.

Arriving at the restaurant, we are greeted outside by a young woman. She checks off my name on the reservation list, then hands me two menus. I have come with my friend Jenny Tough, thinking that a meal in the pitch dark will be more interesting and insightfully experienced with a pal across the table to talk to. We scan our menus and choose our main meal, with both starter and dessert listed as “Surprise of the day”. 

Then we’re introduced to our server, Dustin, a slender, muscular man dressed entirely in black, wearing seemingly opaque dark glasses. As he leads us into the foyer of the restaurant, the darkness is all-consuming, disconcerting; expected yet unexpected. Jenny’s hand is on Dustin’s shoulder, and mine on hers, as we move like a human train, she and I shuffling along to our table. “We’ll be taking a slight left turn now,” Dustin instructs. “Straight ahead now.” Corners successfully navigated, arriving at our assigned table, he says, “Give me your hand, and I’m going to place it on the back of your chair.” 

Chair felt, assessed, and sat on; table edge detected and dimensions confirmed. I feel the space to my left. It’s solid, yet framed – a blacked-out window. I feel the tabletop. Spongy placemat, tiny plastic butter pat on a small paper napkin, all on top of a small ceramic plate. Arriving with wine, Dustin asks again, one by one, for our hands, and as my brain immediately imagines wine glass collisions, broken glass and sliced skin, I wonder if they’ve ever had to break the simulation for emergencies.

The first “Surprise of the day” is some kind of salad, accented with some kind of cheese, and some kind of tropical fruit. Unripe mango? Papaya? With no visual cues, only our tongues to do the telling, it really is a surprise. Chasing dressing-moistened salad around a slippery plate with my unguided fork, I am too embarrassed to say no when Dustin arrives to ask, “Are you finished?”, so unfinished salad is whisked away in the dark.

Our main course follows. The smell is overwhelming, delicious, warm. We have both chosen beef, roast potatoes and assorted vegetables. Even more than with the salad, I feel encumbered by not being able to sense – apart from hints from the weight and ease with which the fork prongs penetrate the food – what my mouth is about to receive. Knowing nobody is watching me in the dark I put down my knife. I begin scanning my plate with my flattened right hand, not touching at first, sensing, by steamy heat, the geography and contours of my food. The meat, Dustin has explained, is pre-sliced, though in quite large pieces. I can’t resist the comfort of eating the vegetables – carrots, beets, and probably sweet potatoes – with my right hand, enabling me to at least guess, if not fully discern, what flavour my taste buds should expect, based on size, weight and texture.

It is the surprise dessert that is most surprising. Jenny guesses hers quickly: chocolate mousse cake. But mine is something cold. It’s frozen, with the texture of ice cream, but upon first bite, my taste buds scream “mustard”. Sweet mustard ice cream seems a peculiar choice, even for a surprise in the dark. I assume I am wrong, but with every successive bite I cannot get the first impression – the taste of sweet, nasty, hot-dog-fixing mustard – out of my head. And now of course, because I have been giving a running commentary of my tasting, when Jenny tries a bite, the power of suggestion is apparently too great. She tastes mustard as well, though also something citrusy, she thinks.

Such “experience” restaurants have become something of a trend in recent years. And while this and others like it clearly provide employment opportunities for blind and visually impaired people, it is questionable whether the experience of eating in temporary blindness really gives diners an accurate insight into life with visual impairment. This kind of experience is known in the academic world as disability simulation. In various forms – simulating blindness, deafness or reduced mobility – it’s a concept that’s been used for many years in training rehabilitation workers.

Like the old adage that we shouldn’t judge another person until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes, simulating other people’s experiences has long been advocated as a way of improving attitudes towards them. In experiments, people who are temporarily hungry judge overeaters less critically than those who are not hungry; people who are cold understand the need for warm clothing more than those already warm; and people navigating in a wheelchair to simulate paraplegia express greater sympathy than those who don’t towards physically disabled people.

But simulating disability may have important and often overlooked disadvantages. If people focus on “the initial challenges and failure experiences of becoming disabled, rather than the competencies and adaptations of being disabled… they may underestimate how thoroughly and quickly people can adapt,” argue Dr Arielle M Silverman and colleagues, in recent research that explores blindness simulation and its effects on attitudes.

Blind since birth, Silverman suspected that the knowledge that people were getting from such short-term simulations was misleading and inaccurate. She and her colleagues recruited college students to participate in simulation or control groups. In the simulations, students were blindfolded and asked to perform tasks such as walking around the perimeter of a room, opening a pitcher and filling a glass with water, sorting coins randomly scattered across the table, and writing their student identification code on the blackboard. After these activities, the researchers asked the participants how competent they thought blind people would be at things like living on their own and performing professional activities such as being a schoolteacher. They discovered that the simulation of blindness caused participants to judge blind people as less capable of activities than did those who did not experience the simulation.

Other studies of disability simulation have shown mixed effects – some positive, such as increased empathy, but some negative, such as excessive helping and pity. Such well-meaning but misleading experiences, suggest Silverman and her colleagues, may feed into paternalistic attitudes that can create barriers, that – in combination with socioeconomic disadvantage – can limit the opportunities for disabled individuals to enjoy independent living.

As we chat on the phone, Silverman explains that she is preparing for a training workshop for clinicians at a social service agency. There, she will have participants role-play not the physical disability but some of the social disadvantages that sometimes ensue. She’s planning to have people role-play being aliens on a planet where everyone can fly. “They become disabled by virtue of not being able to fly. So I’m going to have them think about what adaptations they would make, and how they would want to be integrated into that planet.”

Back at our dark table at Dark Table on our own planet, we’ve finished our meal, and we’re led across the room of other customers, listening to snippets of conversation en route, navigating again with hands on shoulders, led by Dustin’s voice commands. Drawing back a dark curtain, our eyes quickly adjust to a dimly lit kitchen entrance where two sighted servers take our payment. I forget to ask about the ingredients of the salad, but remember to ask about the ice cream. “Blackcurrant,” I’m told. But I still don’t believe it.

As we’re led back into the dark, then into the light of the foyer by the door, the space behind my eyes is hurting as, door opened, I adjust to the dazzling evening light. I feel slightly queasy, mouth still tasting of mustard.

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