June 6th, 2011 | by ASHLEY COLLMAN Food & Drink |

Even If We're Just Eating in the Dark

An eye-opening evening at Portland's Blind Cafe

candlephoto by RedEyeRex on Flickr
The Blind Cafe is an awareness dinner unlike any other. Instead of attending a social gala supporting some far-off cause, The Blind Cafe takes place in a completely dark room, letting the diners see what it’s really like to be blind, if only for a few hours.

The event is the brainchild of Rosh (yes, just Rosh), a musician from Bolder, CO, who attended a blind cafe in Iceland and brought the idea back to the states. He incorporated live music into the event and now organizes blind cafes in Austin, Boulder and Portland.

Still, sitting in a dark room for a few hours didn’t seem like my idea of fun. Like the cheeky older man sitting across the table from me said, “I’ve been in a dark room for much longer than this.”

You have no idea just how dark the room gets until you are guided by the blind wait staff into the dining room. With absolutely no light, it is impossible to make out any shapes. The only way to find the table is to hold on to the person walking in front of you and feel around for chairs.

Once everyone was seated, dinner began. The food was already on the table, and was vegan and gluten-free to accommodate any food allergies. Smart idea, but not exactly a full meal by any means.

The act of eating offered a bit of struggle. With just a fork, and no sense of where food was positioned on my plate, etiquette was thrown out the door. I used my hands and bent over the plate to shovel the food into my mouth. Manners were obviously not designed with the blind in mind.

You know that theory that if you bit into an onion with your eyes closed it would taste just like an apple? We didn’t road test that, but I had no trouble deciphering the food served. A rubbery feeling salad roll awaited us on our plates. The rest of the course included a couscous dish and a potato salad.

The best part came after dinner when the blind wait staff talked to the audience about their lives. Gerry Leary has been blind all of his life and owns the Unseen Bean, a coffee roasting company and cafe in Boulder. For years he worked as a mechanic.

Another member of the staff was born blind, but had an amazing surgery that gave her vision and she was able to see her two children born, until she slowly lost her vision again.

Catherine Miller, another server, is blind but is a painter. For her, the visual arts aren’t visual.

It was even more enlightening when the audience got to ask questions. How do the blind perceive beauty? For those that have never had vision, what do they think it means to see? What’s their idea of color? How to they find a potential partner attractive if they can’t see them? What kind of items to the blind keep as keepsakes if they can’t see pictures? One man wanted to know how to approach blind people like he would the non-blind, in social situations like being together in an elevator.

After the Q&A, there was spoken word poetry and some live music from the organizer, Rosh. It was interesting to hear the music without any distractions, and amazing when you realized that they were playing without seeing too. Still, not the most entertaining part of the night. I kept on thinking about all the other questions I had for the blind attendees. And when the audience was asked to sing along for the last song, it got a bit too Kumbayah for my liking.

Then the lights came on, a most stressful moment. I was almost afraid to see my surroundings.

I expected the experience would make me see just how difficult it is to be blind; how much the blind needed our support for their disability. If anything, I learned the opposite. By the end of the night I was comfortable in my surroundings. Everyone worked together to serve the meal, and though we may have fumbled trying to find dishes and cutlery, it didn’t stop us from eating.

Blind foundations may need our financial support, but the blind themselves just want us to treat them like anyone else, because when it comes down to it, they’re just normal people faced with a challenge.

 
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