- Casting Light on Disability
What would it be like to experience New York City through senses other than sight? How would it feel to be totally dependent on another person? How does a blind person navigate the world? These are questions that inspire “Dialog in the Dark,” an interactive exhibit that opened in Manhattan in summer 2011. It is billed as a sensory tour of the city, taking visitors through a series of rooms designed to simulate such well-known urban locales as Central Park, the Fairway Market, the subway, and Times Square. The hitch is that all of this happens in total darkness. After being outfitted with white canes, visitors put themselves into the hands of a blind guide, who helps them navigate these different landscapes via touch, smell, and sound. At the end, they sit down for frank and uninhibited conversation about what they have just experienced.
Gimmicky as it may sound, “Dialog in the Dark” offers a compelling, if imperfect, opportunity to reflect on the relation of darkness to disability and the senses. Casting visitors into total darkness, it invites them to think about the primacy of vision and to activate other sensory modalities in its absence. Sightless in an alien context, we become utterly reliant on a blind guide. The exhibit reverses familiar hierarchies of power and ability, prompting us to recognize the extent to which disability is produced by environmental and social factors. At the same time, “Dialog” medicalizes disability by dwelling on the pathology of vision loss. Equating darkness with blindness, it encourages visitors to believe they have experienced life as a blind person. Although it promises to develop sensitivity and awareness, the exhibit stages the kind of disability tourism that many have soundly criticized as a pedagogical tool. As part of a global franchise of darkness-related industries, “Dialog” betrays a palpable tension between its educational and commercial ambitions. Are the “Dialog” enterprises little more than a theme park of sensory impairment, involving the commodification of disability experience for corporate profit? Or is there value to the experience despite, or perhaps even because of, its corporate [End Page 851] underpinnings? As it raises these questions, “Dialog” points to deeper tensions within disability studies between the desire for successful assimilation and the impulse toward sustained, radical critique.
Described as an “exhibition,” “Dialog” is less presentation than an immersive sensory experience. Before entering, visitors are required to shed bags, coats, watches, cell phones, and anything else that might emit light or distracting sound. A staff member assigns us appropriately-sized white canes and instructs us to stand in a waiting area where TV monitors show slides of New York cityscapes as if seen through the eyes of people with different visual impairments: with glaucoma that means a small circle of vision surrounded by darkness, cataracts turn the world gray and blurry, macular degeneration creates a dark spot at the center of the visual field. The images fade and a video appears on the screen. A man standing against a simple, dark background gives tips on how to grasp the cane properly, instructing us to tap it from side to side to feel the terrain ahead. He connects the dark of the exhibit to blindness, giving facts and statistics about diseases of the eye. His comforting voice reassures us we will be completely safe. The tour is led by experienced and competent guides, he explains. And even though we will be unable to see, we cannot get lost in the exhibit. Rooms are equipped with special infrared cameras that allow us to be seen at all times.
As the video ends, the exhibition staff leads our group into a dimly lit antechamber where we sit on benches lining the walls. Slowly the lights fade to complete darkness. We hear the sound of a door opening, and our guide enters. During my first tour, our guide was Romeo, a gentle, charismatic Brooklynite (originally from the Caribbean) who lost his vision to glaucoma at the age of two. While we were still seated, he asked us to introduce ourselves and offered...