|Blind and Leading The Way|
|Wednesday, January 04, 2012|
Bertram Sanders has found his work as a “Dialog” guide personally therapeutic. When discussing his impaired vision with visitors to the exhibit, he says, “I’m able to dissect how I’m feeling.”
Story and photos by Sherry Mazzocchi
Once Derek Suárez poured dish soap on his pancakes.
The bottles of soap and syrup felt the same, but the soapy smell was a giveaway.
“I didn’t eat any. But they were the cleanest pancakes I ever had,” he joked.
Suárez is blind.
But he shows sighted people the way: how to walk in traffic, shop for food and take the subway in Times Square.
Suárez works at “Dialog in the Dark,” a South Street Seaport exhibition. Visually impaired guides like Suárez of northern Manhattan and Bertram Sanders of the Bronx lead people through virtual tours in total darkness.
Armed with canes, people walk through simulated experiences of walking through Central Park, shopping at Fairway and taking a subway ride.
“Dialog in the Dark” exhibitions are held in 19 cities around the world, employing thousands of blind people.
Between 600,000 to 800,000 people attend annually worldwide.
German entrepreneur Andreas Heinecke came up with idea two decades ago. Dedicated to creating businesses with a social vision, he liked the idea of taking people out of their comfort zones.
“Darkness is a wonderful media for learning,” Heinecke told a Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) audience in 2011. “It’s so immersive…so immediate.”
The idea of role reversal is key.
Suárez and Sanders lead groups of fumbling, groping sighted people along a simple path in the dark. As their canes knock into each other, people are often hesitant to step forward. Walking over ramps and up and down three small steps is challenging.
Visitors eventually become accustomed to the velvety darkness, using handrails and voices as guideposts.
In a simulated Central Park, visitors feel cobblestones and dirt under their feet. They hear the sounds of horses and joggers running past. Bird songs fill the air. Visitors can even feel water in the fountain.
The tour becomes also an inner journey as participants imagine how they could function if the condition were permanent.
“I like to ask people if they can enjoy the park without their eyesight, and just kind of open that question up to everybody,” Suárez said.
Sanders, a resident of Mott Haven, said the work gives him a sense of purpose. Not only does he guide people along the path, he enlightens them about what it means to be blind.
And the work, he says, is personally therapeutic.
Everyday, strangers ask him about his vision and ability to function in a world geared toward sighted people.
“I’m able to dissect how I’m feeling, and give them a truthful and honest answer,” he said. After talking to strangers, he says it is easier to talk to family and friends about sensitive subjects.
Sanders’ low vision makes some doubt his dreams of becoming a writer, musician and rap lyricist. He has congenital glaucoma, a condition notably shared by some remarkable figures in music, including Andrea Bocelli, Jose Feliciano and Ray Charles.
Suárez and his twin brother Alvin were born premature, had very low birth weights and were kept in incubators. Excessive exposure to oxygen damaged their eyes.
In fact, Suárez said his visual impairment has made him more in tune with music. He has performed in venues all over the city, in Puerto Rico and in Cuba. He and his brother are in an all-blind Latin band called Los Ciegos del Barrio—the Blind Boys of El Barrio.
Like Sanders, Suárez said he loves his job.
“Everyday, I get to welcome people to my world,” he said.
For more information on the Dialog in the Dark exhibit, please visit http://www.dialognyc.com/ or call 888.926.3437.
To hear Bertram Sanders, the rap lyricist, share his story and his rhymes, please visit http://bit.ly/BFP_012.
And to hear how Derek Suárez came to “Dialog in the Dark,” please visit http://bit.ly/BFP_011.