My niece is showing me her room, she lifts up a little bear and with a press, he lights up. “He chases away the monsters,” she tells me. From a young age we fear the monsters in the dark, and although I’m no longer afraid of the monsters, I have been afraid of a permanent darkness, of losing my vision. I’m not alone, in a Vision 2020 Australian national study it was found that nearly two-thirds of Australians fear going blind over losing a limb or having a heart attack.
It’s an unlikely fear with 75 per cent of vision loss or blindness being preventable or treatable. And yet at times, I think how I would live without sight. I was able to experience it for an hour at Dialogue in the Dark. With the help of a blind or partially sighted guide, I am going to explore a completely dark space created to mimic Melbourne.
I’m given a cane and we enter. The light dissipates more quickly than I expected, a few turns and we’re in utter darkness. All I know is the cold, smooth rail under my hand, and then it ends. I am nowhere. Adrift in the dark. But no, there is a click of a cane behind me. I am not the only one here to experience a Dialogue in the Dark. The kind voice of our guide helps us through. We’re in her world now. She lost the majority of her sight when she was three, a tumour that can’t be removed. Her world is one of touch and sound. Even before we enter we’re told that our voice will be important. For someone who often has problems finding their voice this resonated with me. Our voices were essential in making our presence known and in helping each other navigate the darkness.
It was all we knew of our guide – her confident, patient and kind voice – just a presence in the dark – but that doesn’t mean we knew her any less. She said that she’s not interested in what people look like, and why would she be when she has their voice, their presence.
We’re taken through a market and with touch and smell we decipher what’s in front of us. An onion, it’s skin flaking off. A pineapple, rough under my fingers. An apple. The image of a red apple pops into mind as I feel it’s smooth round surface. What comes first into the mind of those you have never seen an apple? Is it the shape, the feeling of the texture, the smell, the crunch as you bite through the skin?
We’re in a forest, the texture beneath our feet changes, a breeze on our faces, the sounds of birds in the distance. A leaf brushes against my face and it’s the most frightful experience of the day. I realise how intrusive a touch could be, to someone who can not see it coming. Someone is having trouble finding an object and our guide asks, ‘Can I touch your hand?’. He answers, ‘Yes, of course.’ His tone suggests it’s an unnecessary question. But it seems a very important question to me. If you can not see the touch coming, the sudden fingers on yours, it would be an invasion.
With the help of our guide, we navigate through the constructed recreation of Melbourne, past the MCG, through the Queen Vic markets, a laneway, onto a tram and finishing up in a living room. Much more confident now I found my way around the space with more ease. Now I’m intrigued to see the space in the light. How different would it be? The only impression I have is what I managed to touch. Perhaps it would be different for someone with more experience navigating in the dark. Our guide says that although she’s never been taught to use echoes to ‘see’ a space, she’s still able to tell where walls and large objects are, it seems to me like an almost subconscious rendering of echoing sounds. It’s a difference world to the one I’m used to, but that doesn’t make it a lesser one. Our guide’s independence and strength is proof of that.