Reporter sees things differently after Dining in the Dark

Emma Childs
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CNIB hosts fourth annual dinner in Charlottetown, where diners are blindfolded to better understand world of visual impairment

Dining In The Dark is a fundraising and awareness program of the CNIB with events held across Canada, including Charlottetown. Attending the 2014 event at the Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown are, from left, Christine Arsenault, CNIB orientation and mobility specialist on P.E.I., Sonja Walker, a client of CNIB, and Emma Childs, a reporter at The Guardian who attended Friday’s dinner.

By the time the third course was served, I felt vulnerable and inexperienced. The blindfold had gone from being a fun challenge to an absolute burden.

I found myself turning my head down towards my lap, just to steal a quick glimpse of the light that escaped the blindfold. Seeing my hands sitting in my lap had never felt so rewarding.

My arms were pulled in tight to my sides as I focused on being as unobtrusive as possible in the space around me. My one comfort came from knowing that everyone else at my table was also masked and that nothing I did was being seen, criticized or judged by others.

Last Friday, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) hosted its fourth annual Dining in the Dark event at the Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown, where hundreds of guests enjoyed a four-course meal, without the use of sight, to raise awareness about vision impairment.

Most of the attendees opted to wear a blindfold for the entire duration of the two-hour meal, while many of those who did not were already subject to vision loss.

“Some people never get to take their blindfolds off,” explained Peter Parsons, the CNIB’s manager of programs and services.

At first, the challenge of the evening seemed entirely physical.

The nine spots around the small circular table were pulled in close to one another. There was such an extensive assortment of dinnerware arranged in front of each seat that hardly any of the tabletop was left uncovered.

The tables were so close together that I often found myself jumping when someone would accidentally brush against the back of my chair. With my blindfold on, the faintest tint of light passed through, just enough to decipher my plate from my neighbour’s if I moved my face close enough to the table.

Within moments of trying to eat a roll, I had created a mess of breadcrumbs and buttered the palm of my own hand. When I reached for my drink, I constantly feared that I would knock over a wine glass and stain the tablecloth. When I tried to eat, I grew increasingly frustrated by lifting the fork to my mouth and finding it completely bare.

I could hardly tell what I was eating as an appetizer. The texture was unlike most meat I have tasted. It was soft and moist, and I cut through it with relative ease. The saltiness of the substance reminded me of a pork loin, but all of my tablemates seemed to concede that it was some type of sausage.

Every now and then I would taste a distinctive crunch, which I swore were potato chips used as garnish.

On top of this, it felt nearly impossible to socialize with the guests around the table I had just met. I had been robbed of the ability to associate faces with voices, making it a challenge to decipher who was speaking at any given point.

As the final course arrived, I was counting down the minutes until I could remove my blindfold. The dessert had an array of different textures: a soft, creamy paste that tasted like white chocolate mousse, a thin, crispy wafer that had been wedged on top and a layer of something chocolaty and spongy that tasted like cake.

Without debate, it was one of the most delicious deserts I had ever tasted, and I felt so wrong eating it without taking even a brief moment to appreciate the presentation.

As I paced myself through this delicacy, speakers stepped up to the microphone to provide some closing remarks to the event. As they spoke, I found myself spinning my head in the direction of their voice. It made no impact on the volume of their speech, but I instinctively associated the orientation of my eyes with the act of giving them my attention.

Minutes later, I removed my blindfold and everything around rushed at me with such remarkable colour and detail. The room locked significantly smaller than I had remembered. Hearing voices from every direction throughout the night gave the illusion that the hall was much bigger than it actually was. I had never felt so relieved to see again and I couldn’t help but feel extremely sympathetic towards those living with permanent vision loss.

This attitude is exactly what the CNIB and the event itself are intended to rewire.

“It’s not about not being able to do something, it’s about finding different ways of doing it,” said Parsons.

Throughout the night, my tablemates had provided me with strategies to cope, like gently feeling around for my wine glass with my hands low to the table, or pushing my food toward the centre of my plate to have a better chance at scooping a forkful. The techniques offered common sense solutions that required just a little getting used to.

The CNIB advocates for their members to live “full and active lives, emotionally and socially” by providing free services to those with vision loss to learn different ways of doing everyday tasks, said Pamela Gow-Boyd, the CNIB’s executive director for Atlantic Canada.

The event was the fourth to be held in Charlottetown, with special guest Terry Kelly performing songs and sharing stories throughout the evening. The event raised a total of $32,500 in funds through ticket sales and items sold in both a silent and live auction.

“By the generous support we’re able to teach our clients to live independent and full lives,” said Parsons as he removed

his blindfold. “Maybe by doing things slightly differently, but nonetheless doing what they enjoy doing.”

Organizations: CNIB, Canadian National Institute for the Blind, Culinary Institute of Canada

Geographic location: Charlottetown

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