I did a lot of volunteering in college, but I’ve been slacking in the “giving back” department since graduating. I’d like to blame a hectic work schedule and active social life, but I know it’s really poor time management and laziness that’s stopped me from getting involved.
After watching Craigslist Joe a few months ago, I was checking out the volunteer section of Austin’s Craigslist and came across a listing for The Blind Café. I took it as a sign that the first listing to pop up in my search hit so close to home for me and emailed the organizer to get involved.
My mom is visually impaired, legally blind in one eye and entirely blind in the other, so blindness has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It’s a disability that many can’t fathom, but according to the World Health Organization, there are actually 11.4 million legally blind individuals in the United States. Since my mom does have some vision in one eye, she doesn’t use a cane (though she is training to use one) and is able to read with the help of a high power magnifier instead of reading braille. Growing up, most of my friends had no clue that my mom was visually impaired, aside from the fact that she couldn’t drive to pick us up from field hockey or band practice. Sometimes the only clues I have are a broken glass here and there or the voices of her talking calculator and watch ringing through the house. Oh, and steps. I’m so used to counting steps out loud that I sometimes forget who I’m with and will tell sighted friends to “watch the curb.”
The mission of The Blind Café is to bridge the gap between the sighted, blind, and visually impaired through music and conversation in the dark. During the event, guests have the chance to enjoy local food, listen to music, and learn about the blind community, all while sitting in a pitch black room where they can see nothing at all. I ended up helping out with the box office at the Austin event and had the chance to experience the darkness firsthand. It was a mind-blowing experience.
I knew ahead of time that everyone in the event would be seated in the dark, but for some reason I assumed that there would be some visible shadows on the ground or light shining in from around a window or curtain. Nope! It was pitch black inside the event space, probably the blackest black I’ve ever experienced. Even though we were seated in the dark for nearly two hours, my eyes never adjusted.
I’m not sure how the other tables did with the food portion of the event, but at the volunteer table we managed to spill oil everywhere, repeatedly lose our bread bowl, and I’m pretty positive I was eating off of my neighbor’s plate at one point during the night. Without eye contact or the ability to read facial expressions we were forced to pick up on other conversational clues as we chatted in the dark. These included grasping for hands or shoulders and asking “are you still there??” every five seconds.
One of my favorite parts of the evening was the question and answer session with the blind wait staff, who whisked around the room all night making sure guests were comfortable. The blind ladies answered questions about dating and how they manage to match clothing together, and the guy servers answered questions about playing sports and being blind parents. All of the servers live full lives and it was great to meet such inspiring members of the blind community.
The event concluded with two great musical performances by the bands Rosh & One Eye Glass Broken and The Constellation Prize. I don’t know that I’ve listened to an hour of music in the pitch black ever, and it seemed so much more vibrant without other distractions.
The Blind Café has made its way around the country to New York, Seattle, Portland, Austin, and Boulder. Even if you’ve never known a blind individual, it’s such a unique experience to be without one of your most relied-upon senses that I would encourage anyone to attend this event. If you’re interested in learning more or bringing an event like this to a city near you, shoot an email to email@example.com or visit The Blind Cafe website.