10/8/12

Don't Be A One-Armed Zombie

My wife works for Lighthouse International, a terrific non-profit dedicated to empowering people who are blind and visually impaired. Last week we attended an "experience" developed in partnership with the Lighthouse. Dialog in the Dark is called an exhibition, and is produced by the company that produced the Bodies Exhibition, but calling it an exhibition or a production completely misses the mark. The experience begins with a brief video explaining how to use the cane they've just handed you. Then you are led into a small room with light boxes along the walls, and you're instructed to take a seat on one of the boxes. Another video plays describing the daily experience of people who are visually impaired in New York City and the light boxes begin to dim. As the screens wink out the boxes finally switch off and you are left in the dark. The organizers have taken great care to remove all light pollution so that the rest of the exhibit is entirely pitch black, which means your eyes never adjust. For the next hour you experience something like blindness.

We sat in the dark for a minute or so; my wife squeezing my hand tightly. Then we heard a door open to our left and a man's voice said, "Hello, I'm Pedro, what are your names?" After the preliminaries, he gave us one directive, "Don't be a one-armed zombie. Use your cane to navigate." With that, Pedro took us on a tour of New York City as experienced by people who are blind. We went to Central Park, to Fairway Market on the Upper West Side, and we took the Subway down to Times Square. I've lived in New York for nearly 20 years and I have done all of these things many, many times, but this was a different world. It was an immersive experience for the senses except for, obviously, sight -- and as Pedro pointed out, there was actually no tasting on this tour. But they took great care to recreate the feel and sound of the city. In the subway set, they either pumped in the smell of stale urine, or my association with the subway is so strongly correlated to that smell that I imagined it.

My wife and I stumbled through the set, bumping into trash cans and mailboxes, benches and trees, while Pedro danced around us with ease. He would come up beside me, put a hand on my shoulder and work down to my wrist, grabbing it and placing it directly on an object in front of me, or on a wall. "Ryan, do you know what this is? What do you think that is?" It was incredible. He didn't fumble or guess. It was clear that he knew exactly where we were at all times. He would say things like, "Oops, no you're facing the wrong way, turn around." How did he know? His voice would suddenly come from a new direction and he would say, "OK, we're going this way now, follow my tapping." And he would tap his cane on the side of the wall, or a nearby pole until we felt our way over to him. Most remarkably, he would occasionally say, "No one-armed zombies." just as I raised my left hand to feel in front of me. At one point, I was convinced that we would come to the end of the tour, turn the lights up and find out that Pedro was fully sighted and wearing infrared goggles of some kind.

At the end of the tour, there is a Q&A session and the lights slowly come up as you are talking with your guide. Pedro sat across the table from us. No IR goggles. He was definitely visually impaired. Suddenly I felt a wave of guilt for even having a fleeting thought that it wasn't completely above board. Since my wife began working at the Lighthouse, I have met many people who are visually impaired and I have seen hundreds more leaving the Lighthouse building as I waited outside for her to come down after work. I realized I've never seen any of them do the one-armed zombie as they navigated the real world.

I have now spent several days reliving Dialog in the Dark. I wanted to write this post because I feel like there are many lessons to be learned from this experience. The metaphors and analogies abound; from issues of leadership and faith, to prejudice and fear, to recognizing individual capabilities rather than focusing on inabilities, to navigating the "new normal" or planning a personal career path. I could go on. But suffice it to say, that a very good piece of advice, in nearly any endeavor is "don't be a one-armed zombie." Take that to mean what you will.

And if you happen to be in New York City, forget the lights of Broadway, go experience the Dark.

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