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A lifetime of insights gained from a few hours without sight

For 23 diners in Birmingham last Thursday, Dinner in the Dark was a real eye-opening experience, especially since the diners were blindfolded. The event gave sighted individuals some understanding of what it means to be visually impaired.

“Dinner in the Dark was designed to raise awareness about what it is like to live — just for a brief moment — with an eye condition that interrupts basic activities such as eating,” said Laura Dreer, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the event organizer.

The event, held at Rojo Birmingham, was hosted by UAB Connections, a support group for people with visual impairments. The participants included caregivers of members of the group, along with UAB ophthalmologists, residents and technicians.

Each was blindfolded outside the restaurant and led to their table within. They were told to imagine their place setting as a clock. Knife at 3 o’clock. Water glass just above it. Salsa at 11 o’clock. Their dinner choices were patiently read to them by the volunteer wait staff at Rojo. Fajitas, with their sizzling hot plates, were left off the menu.

For the diners, spatial relationships were confused. Most had no idea where they were in the restaurant, or even which direction they were facing. Many said good communication was a must. Nonverbal cues were lost, but conversation — and listening — improved. And no one wasted time looking at their smartphone. Most of all, diners realized that losing the sense of sight is profoundly challenging.

“I’ve come to appreciate the amount of memory it takes to recall where things are,” said participant Russell Read, MD, professor of ophthalmology at UAB. “It was difficult to navigate to where my water glass was, and to find the tortilla chips while not sticking my fingers in the salsa.”

Read was one of several UAB ophthalmologists who took part, realizing that this was an unprecedented opportunity to better understand the reality their patients face.

“It’s figuratively an eye-opening experience,” Read said. “We get so caught up as doctors in the technology and the science of taking care of people that we forget about the human aspect of things. So it’s an incredibly valuable experience, even if it’s just for one night.”

“It gives us a little bit of perspective on what our patients go through and on what they encounter in their everyday lives,” said Ryan Burton, MD, a UAB ophthalmology resident. “We get some insight about how much their visual impairment affects their everyday activities through something as simple as sitting down to eat dinner.”

Each table in the Rojo private dining room held two or three blindfolded participants, along with a support group member with a real visual impairment. Volunteers stood by to assist, but were told to let the participants learn for themselves.

“It’s been incredible going from table to table and watching the interactions with the support group members, their family members, the residents, technicians and the doctors,” Dreer said. “This is an educational experience for all of us that cannot be duplicated in a doctor’s office or at Callahan Eye Hospital.”

Educational and challenging to be sure, but the night was also fun.

“I wanted a salad, but ordered finger food because I was sure I wouldn’t be able to negotiate getting salad into my mouth,” said Torrey DeKeyser, executive director of the EyeSight Foundation of Alabama, which funded the event. “I didn’t dare scoop up salsa with my tortilla chips; I just dipped.”

“A couple of people told me they felt as if they were dropping salsa on themselves,” said Dreer. “And I told them, ‘Well, you actually are.’ Fortunately, we had bibs.”

Afterward, Dreer proclaimed the first-time event a tremendous success and said UAB Connections has plans to expand the concept.

“We’ll build on this in the future and host other events at other restaurants, or stage different activities,” Dreer said. “We might do things with recreation or leisure that are also fun and challenging. We want to branch out and do this again, for the public, our residents, trainees and technicians, and our support group members and their families.”

Read summed up the overall response from the participants.

“I’m in awe of people who have to deal with vision loss all the time.”