XXIII.1 January + February 2016
Page: 22
Digital Citation

Trying to see the world with new eyes

Elizabeth Churchill

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Have you ever had that conversation where you discuss which sense you'd miss the most? Sight? Hearing? Smell? Taste? Touch?

A recent design discussion brought this to mind. An array of personas generated from discussion had proven to be oddly homogeneous when it came to sensorial capacity: None were hard of hearing and none had tinnitus; none were anosmic; none had visual impairments. We didn't discuss taste, but I bet they all would have been within a "normal" range had we been discussing a food product. None were supertasters nor ageusic, and none had decreased sensation with touch.

I shared this concern with a friend, and he pointed me to the Blind Cafe. Part of a movement for raising awareness of the experience of living with visual impairment, the Blind Cafe offers a three-course dinner where diners are waited on by visually impaired staff. The evening unfolds with speeches, a band, dancing—all in complete darkness [1].

I have always found that slight nervousness—pushing oneself to the edge of one's comfort zone—creates a fertile ground for learning. On the evening I attended the Blind Cafe, I was nervous. Many aha! moments ensued. First, it is jarring to not be able to see one's food. Was that a chestnut? Sweet potato? Salad, yes, and a simple vinaigrette ... Meatloaf? But I thought this was a vegetarian meal. Finding the silverware and my wine and water glasses was easier than anticipated; they were in their "usual" positions. Items with less conventional spatial homes were ably located for me by the staff using the guide of a clock face: an optional sauce at 10 o'clock, pepper at 2 o'clock, additional salad in front of me at 12. This was helpful. That said, more than once I put my hand in my food when reaching for my fork. The evening went well, with much conversation—and, happily, not all of it focused on meta discussions of the experience itself.

The evening unfolds with speeches, a band, dancing—all in complete darkness.

The biggest surprise, though, was when the lights came on. After two hours of eating, drinking, listening to music, and dancing, I had formed a strong impression of where I was—a spatial mental model. An erroneous mental model, as it turns out. Where I had imagined round tables, there were oblongs; where I had imagined a fairly substantial dance floor, there was a small square; where I had imagined doors, there were solid walls; the woman I had been talking to all evening looked nothing as I had imagined. I had not even realized how strong my mental model was until that moment, so certain had I been. How delightful to be so completely wrong, to realize that certainty does not guarantee veracity.

There is extensive work in social psychology suggesting that reducing psychological distance (which, crudely stated, manifests as I am not one of them) leads people to unpack stereotypes of "the other" [2]. Further, social psychological research suggests that power can lead to a diminished capacity to take the perspective(s) of others. Thus, two powerful tools in the sensitization and empathy-development process are the reduction of psychological distance and the rebalancing of power differentials. The Blind Cafe does both of these things very effectively.

As the evening folded, I entered into a conversation with Brandi, while she was waiting for her ride home to arrive. She showed me how she used her smartphone to call the cab, how she tries to find a place that is visible to the driver without being able to see what the driver sees, how her perspective-sharing with the sighted can be a challenge. I had a newly sensitized empathy and was listening differently. Now I try to ask myself at least once a day: What questionable certainties am I operating on today? Where am I operating from a position of power and psychological distance that should be challenged? I am trying to see the world with new eyes.

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1. There are other such dining-in-the-dark experiences, some of which are staffed by sighted staff wearing night-vision goggles, but the Blind Cafe and its inspiration the blindekuh ("Blind Man's Bluff," which was launched in 1999 in Zurich, Switzerland) are staffed by visually impaired people almost exclusively. Founded in 2010, the Blind Cafe moves from city to city and so far has served over 11,000 diners.

2. Psychological distance refers to how subjectively (psychologically) close or remote from an event a person is across a range of measures of distance, including time, space, and personal identity.

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Originally from the U.K., Elizabeth Churchill has been leading corporate research at top U.S. companies for the past 18 years. Her research interests include social media, distributed collaboration, mediated communication, and ubiquitous and embedded computing applications.

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UF1Patrons of the Blind Cafe experience a live musical performance in total darkness (

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2016 ACM, Inc.

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