dialogue in the dark is an enriching exhibition that gives you the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the blind.
“welcome to cuti-cuti malaysia,” says yushairizan bin yusop, his crisp voice a source of assurance in the pitch black room where cool air is circulating while an orchestra of nature’s sounds plays its oeuvres. “feel the column on your right. the letters tell you where we are.” i inch forward hesitatingly, tapping my white cane and shuffling my feet as if i’d forgotten how to walk. with my fingers, i ‘read’ the embossed letters one by one until they form a word that makes sense.
i am on a guided tour of dialogue in the dark, a unique exhibition that started in germany 26 years ago and was designed to give the sighted a hands-on experience into the world of the blind. now a global franchise in over 20 countries, the malaysian chapter began early last year as corporate team building workshops before settling into its permanent space at jaya one’s the school in november 2013.
founder stevens chan, who had perfect vision until seven years ago when glaucoma ate away at his sight, had been searching for a platform that would help people realise the importance of eye health and what it means to live without one’s vision. “most of us take our sight for granted,” he says, admitting that he did too, until it was too late. “each year, seven million people become blind; 80 percent of cases could have been avoided.”
stevens set up the malaysia glaucoma society in 2009, which conducts free eye health screenings for the underprivileged besides providing support for sufferers and spreading awareness through roadshows. the latter didn’t quite have the effect he had hoped for, as people couldn’t grasp the importance of the matter by just hearing about it. when he chanced upon dialogue, stevens knew that he had found the answer.
led by blind guides, the one-hour experience takes visitors through everyday situations – simulated by sounds, scents and changing temperatures – that, in the absence of light and sight, become strange new encounters. i shop at the market, discerning food from fruits through touch and smell. i cross a street by listening to audio cues from the traffic lights.
even within the safe confines of the room, my mind imagines all manners of potential harm. it’s fear, more than the temporary loss of my vision, that slows me down. trust – in the guide and the white cane – is my only friend. “it’s a reversal of roles,” says steven. “in the light, the blind are seen as weak ones but in the dark, they are the strong ones.”
if the set-up scenes are difficult enough to navigate, how then does one manage the challenges of real, everyday life? dialogue’s bigger aim is to establish malaysia’s first training academy for guide dogs. “having a guide dog changes our lives tremendously,” says steven, who owns malaysia’s first such animal, sourced from a school in nanjing that has agreed to help dialogue set up theirs. “sean is trained to guide me away from obstacles. having him has also enabled more social inclusion with the public – people usually shy away from speaking to the blind because they are unsure of how to go about it. sean provides a good conversation starter.”
for the blind, man’s best friend can truly live up to their nickname and dialogue hopes to make it a reality for malaysians. set up as a social enterprise, all revenue generated through the exhibition and other activities are channelled towards that cause. corporate sponsorships will also go a long way in helping them realise that goal.
as i regain my sight after the tour, i am struck by how what an enlightening paradox it presents: as you lose your sight, it opens up your eyes and you gain new perspectives into life and the world, ‘seeing’ things that you usually take for granted with your other senses.
dialogue in the dark 100-p1-001 the school, block j, jaya one, petaling jaya tel +603 5891 6212 opens 10am-6pm, tue-fri; 10am-7pm, sat-sun & public holidays; closed mon except during school holidays note eye health checks (rm70 per person) can be arranged with advance reservation
this article first appeared in the edge review