Most people will never know what it's like to be blind. Things we take for granted, like reading Young Post, would be impossible if we lost our sight. A world of complete darkness is full of difficulty and danger. Now, a newly opened exhibition in Hong Kong challenges visitors by taking them on a journey into that world.
Launched this month by social enterprise Dialogue in the Dark, the indoor exhibition takes participants on a 75-minute tour through a series of pitch-black rooms. Visitors are given a cane to help them to navigate the simulated real-life scenarios.
The aim is to raise awareness of the difficulties experienced by the visually impaired, and to make sighted people realise how those with limited or no vision rely on their other senses.
Visitors to the exhibition are led in groups by visually impaired guides on a literal journey of discovery. The first stop is a park. On entering the totally dark space, visitors will smell leaves, hear birds and feel a gentle breeze, and will be encouraged to explore their environment.
The second stop is a pier where visitors board a boat on what seems to be a rising and falling river. This experience highlights how careful visually impaired people have to be when using public transport.
The marketplace challenge requires participants to try to cross a road, which comes complete with traffic sounds and raised pavement cues, and identify the groceries they want to buy.
Finally, they can head to a cafe, where they can sit and listen to music, and order a drink - if they are confident they won't spill it.
Even though visitors know these scenes are simulations, they will still find it a challenge to adapt to the lack of visual cues. This can be a very unsettling experience. Forced to forgo their usual reliance on what they can see, they have to use scents, sounds, textures and temperatures to form non-visual pictures of where they are. Visitors might feel insecure initially, but as they explore on, most gain confidence.
Cindy Li Tin-wai, one of the guides, says the light-free environment forces most visitors to grope around carefully as they figure out what obstacles are in front of them. Even though the guides give them directions, participants usually spend a lot of the time banging into things.
'Most visitors are particularly uneasy in the first few minutes. Some may scream and some bump into each other. Some are glued to their friends,' says Li.
Li says a walk around the 6,000 sq ft space would usually take someone who could see about 15 minutes, but because of the darkness, it can take up to an hour and a quarter.
'To make full use of the tour, you should open your mind and try to use other senses like touch, hearing and smell,' she says. 'You'll discover how sharp these senses actually are.'
The first DiD exhibition was opened in Hamburg, Germany, in 1988 by social entrepreneur Andreas Heinecke. He had worked with the visually impaired and found that many people were biased against them.
Heinecke launched the exhibition to help sighted people to better understand blindness, in the belief that 'the only way to learn is through encounter'.
The German went on to introduce the DiD exhibitions in other countries around the world. To date, exhibitions have been set up in over 150 cities. More than 6 million people worldwide have visited the dark rooms.
The DiD in Hong Kong is at Shop 215, The Household Centre, Nob Hill, 8 King Lai Path, Mei Foo, Kowloon. Both Cantonese and English tours are available, and prior booking is required.
Visit www.dialogue-in-the-dark.hk for more details