I honestly had no idea what to expect. What happens at a blind café? But intrigue led me forward and it turned out to be a very interesting evening.
Last week I went to Mt. Tabor’s Blind Café in Portland. The café apparently is a traveling production so this time it was being held at Mt. Tabor’s Presbyterian Church. I arrived a few minutes early to pick up my ticket and was instructed to have a seat in the sanctuary. I was handed a card with the alphabet in Braille to occupy myself until it was time.
I sat in the slightly darkened room as those around me bantered on to pass the time. Having nothing else to do I tried to teach myself Braille from the card to no avail. There were too many distractions even with the lights low and it took a considerable amount of focus for me to try and remember as far as D (which I have already forgotten).
Rosh, the organizer of the evening, rang the Tibetan Singing Bowl for silence and began to explain the rules. We were to be ushered in one table at a time into a completely dark room that would be serving as our café for the next several hours. Our waiters and waitresses, who were themselves blind, were to lead us in and we were to hold on to the person’s shoulder in front of us for guidance. My table got called and we all rose and walked to the door. Our waiter was very energetic and fun as he welcomed us all before leading us into the darkness.
It’s amazing what your mind creates to be your surroundings when you have no vision of it. As soon as the curtain was closed on us, the light disappeared and we were in complete darkness. Imagine that feeling when you come from outside into a very dark room and it takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust. Well that’s what I experienced for about three hours.
We were corralled into the room. It felt like we turned many corners until the talking got louder and I realized that we must be in the dining area. We moved at a snail’s pace as we slowly let go of each other feeling around for our chairs. We were told that there were three bowls of food at each table and that we were to pass it around and feed ourselves. I felt so out of sorts. First of all, we had to find the bowls and I don’t believe we found the third bowl until much later in the evening.
We learned each other’s names quickly so as to pass around our meal efficiently and began our small talk as we tried to figure out where our plates and silverware and (most importantly) our napkins were. I know I spilled a lot of food into my lap that evening.
When I had finally spooned out my meal onto my plate I attempted (and somewhat succeeded) to eat. Our food turned out to be a melon salad, coos coos and a salad roll with some sort of dipping sauce. It was excellent but I soon discovered that it would have been much messier but easier if I had used my hands instead of utensils. With my fork I couldn’t feel where my food was so I’d stab at my plate and hope to grab something. The result being, I didn’t eat as much as I normally would have. Everything was delicious, but it was just not easy to eat without sight and I was really frustrated. Something that never required thought all of a sudden required focus. I did catch on but I realized how fast I normally move and if I were to be blind I don’t believe I would ever move as fast at normal routines as I do now.
Slowly, we all began to adapt to our circumstances and the evening commenced. First up was Rosh thanking us for coming. The story behind the Blind Café is that it was an experiment that he began in Boulder, Colorado. To teach people with sight what it is like to be without sight. He only intended one night but it was so popular that he hosted a second night as well. He has high hopes for holding it again in Portland and hopefully Seattle but I don’t think he has it planned out just yet.
Next up was a blind artist. She did sculptures for touch and as she spoke about her work, a couple of her pieces were passed around for us to try and guess what it was. I didn’t have a clue and by the end of the night I never did get to see what they were. She spoke about being a minority in her field both as a blind person and as a woman. She said that there are more and more opportunities available to her now but as with anything else, it is a slow process.
Then a blind man spoke to us about his dreams to be a coffee roaster. He was told over and over that being blind he wouldn’t be able to choose the best beans because he couldn’t see their colors. But he proved them all wrong as he could use smell to choose the best bean and now he owns his own shop and will be branching out soon.
Probably the most interesting conversation came from a representative from the National Federation of the Blind. He told us of the staggering illiteracy rate amongst the blind. 90% of blind people can not read Braille and 90% of the blind with employment can. That’s a lot of unemployed and illiterate people. Another issue he spoke about was the increasing popularity of touch screen cell phones. As a blind man, he can’t use those and it’s becoming harder and harder to find a phone that he can. It sounds like they will be bringing this issue to Congress soon as well. Everyone should have the same rights to accessibility and so that’s what the NFB is striving to do.
During the lags in conversation I kept picking up my Braille alphabet and trying to memorize. Not that I expected to learn it all in a couple of hours but it was really frustrating that there were still too many distractions. And when I did try to memorize, I memorized by what the dots looked like rather than felt like and I’m sure that was slowing me down in the learning process as well.
The evening was concluded with a desert of blueberry and chocolate mousse followed by live music. Rosh again spoke to conclude things and thank us for attending. He took out a tiny tea candle and lit it and the room suddenly became real. Imagine that part in the movie Pleasantville when all the color came back. That’s what I experienced in that moment. Not that it was a lot of light but it was like my eyes were starved for it.
I looked around the room and realized that everything that I had imagined it would look like was wrong. The exits were completely in a different place and our table was up against a wall. I had thought the room was longer and it turned out to be a square with high ceilings. We looked at each other for the first time and smiled as we understood right then what we were each thinking.
We often take life for granted and through this experience I realized how blessed I am to have something I never even thought about being blessed to have; sight. The Blind Cafe is an excellent outlet for people to truly appreciate their life with vision by taking it away. The night had been eye opening by turning off our sight and experiencing the world through senses that before had been mostly ignored.
Click here for more information on Braille
Click here for more information on The National Federation of the Blind
Click here for more information on The Portland Blind Cafe
Guest writer Jeanna Murphy is a musician currently living in Portland, OR. Read our review of her debut album here.