Dinner In The Dark Serves Up A Taste Of Living With Blindness

Nov 14, 2014

When you sit down to eat, you probably don’t think much about hand-eye coordination. Try eating without being able to see, though, and that changes.  I recently ate a meal blindfolded at an event held by the NH Association for the Blind at Giuseppe’s restaurant in Meredith.

Participants don their blindfolds at the Dinner in the Dark.
Credit Sean Hurley

I have pretty poor vision. 20/900 in my left eye, 20/400 in the right. Genealogically, I'm a solid candidate for retinal detachment, macular degeneration and cataracts.  And yet with all this action in the eye department, I never think about losing the sight I have. But as I sit down at Giuseppe's in Meredith and pull a blindfold from an envelope with my name on it, I realize this Dinner in the Dark might foreshadow my own future.

"Thank you all for being brave enough to come here.  It will be an experience you won't forget and that is completely true."

Grace Cilley of the NH Association for the Blind welcomes us to the Dinner in the Dark.
Credit Sean Hurley

That's Grace Cilley of the New Hampshire Association for the Blind. She helped organize this evening's Dinner and before we don our blindfolds, she introduces the guest speaker from Nashua, Randy Pierce.

"In 1989 I was fresh out of the University of New Hampshire. I had a great job at Digital Equipment and I had all the normal sight I'd had all of my life and I was invested in every experience I could in life.  Now unfortunately at that point in time I got hit by this unknown neurological disorder that took all of the vision in my right eye and half in my left eye in about 2 weeks."

Though Pierce eventually lost the little vision he had in his left eye, he continued to pursue experience.

Randy Pierce of Nashua tells us how vision loss has changed, and not changed him.
Credit Sean Hurley

  "So on July 4, 2010 I climbed Mount Washington and we stayed at the lake of the clouds hut and what was particularly powerful is that the 90 people who stayed at the hut went out to watch the sunset together."

Pierce describes the cascade of mountain ranges flowing back in feathered grays and browns and then asks -

"Did any of you out there picture that?
Yes.
How can that be? You all pictured that.  But you didn't see it and I didn't see it so how is that possible? And it's because sight lets you see everything that's around you now.  But vision you can get not just by your eyes, not just by your sight.  You can get it from your ears, from description, from your nose.  It's really from your brain." 

The theme of the evening - it becomes clear - is not blindness, but vision. Not what can't be seen by blind eyes, but what can be seen without them.

While there are a number of blind people in attendance most of the diners are sighted. But like John Heckman, most have been touched in some way by vision loss.

"My dad had macular degeneration so I'm gonna live in his world for a few minutes."

Right before dinner is served.
Credit Sean Hurley

  We slide our blindfolds into place.

"I know you're going to be nervous.  I know you are going to feel like the room is suddenly loud. But think about how much more you focus on your other senses when vision is taken away from you."

A server sets my plate down.  The meatloaf, he tells me, is at 6 o'clock. The mash potatoes at 11.  The mixed vegetables at 2. My napkin is somewhere on the table or floor - and I'm already stranded.  But my table mates - Linda Finno and Sarah Harnden are struggling too.

"Oh my god.
What?
I can't cut this damn piece up."

Our forks and knives fumble and miss and don't dance together like they used to.

"I just tried to eat my butter dish thing.
Your what?
The little butter container...ha ha!"

We have very similar experiences. We don't know how much we've eaten.  We lose our water glasses, our napkins.  No one can find the rolls. We grow sleepy in the darkness of our blindfolds.

"Wake me up if I fall asleep.
Oh boy, Linda, don't face plant on your plate."

What's so striking is our lack of improvement.  Over the course of the meal, we get worse at eating blind, not better.  At some uncomfortable point, we simply stop. Remove our blindfolds. Our table is a wreck, our meals look uneaten.  

During desert, Tony Bonanno from Meredith, who's blind and the Chapter President for the National 

Sean Hurley can't find his napkin.
Credit Sam Hurley

Federation of the Blind in New Hampshire, somehow finds me.  He wants a reporter to attend their next meeting to help get the word out.

"Anyway we can get the public to understand what blindness is, it's helpful.  And blindness is just a state of mind.  You know?"

How did you find me? I ask him.  He laughs and tugs at his ears.