I felt the cane pushing between my feet and the wall in front of me. I heard cars honking and wondered if I could survive in this situation. “Has everyone found the car?” our guide asked. Judging by the responses I heard, it seemed everyone had found it except me. I turned around and shouted, “Where’s the car?” and instantly felt a hand guiding me towards it. “Just lower your hand. It’s right in front of you.” A second later, I touched the bumper and felt a huge sense of relief that I wasn’t going to be left behind or run over.
The Dialogue Museum is unlike any other museum I have visited. Most of us were sleep-deprived after our overnight flight from Washington to Amsterdam, and then our connecting flight to Frankfurt. Our group of 15 social studies teachers from across the US split into two smaller groups when we arrived at the museum. All cameras, phones, Fitbits, and anything else that could emit light were left in lockers by the front desk. We were then given canes and instructed to enter a dark room and use the cane to “see” while keeping one hand along the wall. How dark could it be, I wondered.
The white shirt of my fellow participant quickly disappeared as I kept one hand firmly on the wall while moving forward as instructed. I could not see a thing, and would not see anything, for more than an hour. It was darker than any darkness I have ever experienced. But that was the point, to give people with sight a chance to experience the world of those who cannot see.
“Follow my voice.”
“I like railings,” I announced as I found one against the far wall of the first room. Whoever was next to me agreed. Holding onto a railing felt safe since I was completely disoriented. I had no idea where anyone else was. None of us knew where we were and we all fumbled around, tapping each other with our canes until we found the safety of the railing.
There was the sound of water flowing and when I touched the wall behind the rail I felt a stream running down it. Our guide, who did not use a cane, called from across the room. “Follow my voice,” he said and we had let go of the railing. Soon I felt a sheep in front of me. We were instructed to help each other and I suddenly remembered that we still had our voices. Those of us who had found the sheep called out to the others who made their way over. It felt good to be a part of a group and know we could depend on each other.
“It’s only darkness.”
Our guide repeated this reassuring phrase in each of the rooms we entered. He was right, and somehow his voice made everything okay. We really had nothing to fear, but each time we moved to a new room, I needed his voice to ease the anxiety that built up as we entered unknown territory. By listening to his voice, I could tell that he moved around the room with ease. He found me each time I was heading in the wrong direction and gently pulled my hand and cane towards the others. I thought he must have some special night-time goggles on for seeing in the dark. How could he know where everyone was? He would call out directions for us to move to the right or left or to turn around as if he knew each person’s position in the room. Of course, he didn’t have any goggles. He was blind, and his world of darkness would not end in an hour. This is just how he lives.
After the experience with the car, we followed the sidewalk to prepare to cross a street. The clicking of the crosswalk signal told us it was safe to cross. What a sense of accomplishment I felt when I reached the safety of the other side of the road. Soon we were headed down a ramp to the market. I picked up apples, oranges, pineapples and other items. I was surprised at how easy it was to identify each fruit, though I kept hitting my neighbor with my cane. I felt a mailbox, the sides of buildings, windows, and a bicycle. I was having so much fun exploring that I didn’t realize everyone else had moved on to the next room. Of course, our guide was there to reassure me and lead me to the group.
“Why shouldn’t I?”
Our last room was the cafe. I could hear voices of another group as I moved towards the bar. It was disorienting knowing that others were in the room and that there must be places to sit, though I had no idea where. The bartender offered us drinks and we paid with tokens that were given to us at the entrance. I heard the bartender open each drink with a bottle opener as she moved down our line. Though we each ordered something different, everyone got the right drink.
We sat around a low table and chatted with our guide in the dark. I still could not see a single speck of light, but it felt natural to be sitting and chatting with the group. Our guide helped us to “see” what it is like to be blind. He enjoys cooking for friends and traveling by train. In response to our amazement at how “normal” his life seemed, he said, “Why shouldn’t I do these things? It’s just a matter of practice, and then I can do anything.”
Our guide did not exit with us, so I never saw his face. I never saw the rooms we were in. I can only just imagine what they look like and realize that this is part of the experience of being blind. I left the museum knowing I should not feel pity for blind people. I now walk through the streets seeing all of the things that could help me if I were blind. I think about all of the challenges faced by my students and the lessons they can learn about how my guide overcame the challenge of blindness with his positive attitude and desire to teach others.
As our group processed the experience at the Dialogue Museum, we all realized that we were no longer tired, despite being up for more than 24 hours by this point. We were filled with adrenaline and excitement as we headed off to our first meal together in Germany.
“I didn’t know . . .”
Last night, we gathered in our hotel in Wurzburg and reflected as a group on our first three days in Germany. Each day has brought unique learning and adventures that have left us in awe. I want to write about all of them, but time is tight. In the meantime, here are a few photos from the beginning of the two-week tour.