See life through the eyes of a blind person

Monday, 14th May, 2018

DIFFERENT VIEW OF THE WORLD – Kate Stephens with her guide dog, Sheikh.

A new experience in Melbourne shows you the city as you have never seen it – basically by not seeing it at all. It was definitely an eye-opener for SIMON GARNER.

AS I sat in complete darkness talking with Kate Stephens, who had just guided me through a simulated visit to some of Melbourne’s most famous attractions as a blind person would experience them, I caught a glimpse of her reality.

Never in my life had I been with someone in the same room and chatted to them without knowing what they looked like; but for Kate, that’s what every conversation is like.

The 60-year-old works as a guide at Dialogue in the Dark, an immersive experience  where a blind guide takes sighted people out of their familiar environment and into total darkness

Equipped with a cane and using the senses of hearing, touch, taste and smell, you experience five of the city’s highlights over the course of an hour.

It’s challenging in many ways but I always knew Kate was close by and able to give very specific instructions to find my way. It’s also a very profound experience, and I gained an insight to how difficult it must be when you have neither your vision nor a guide on hand to lead you through a busy city.

Yet for Kate, who was born with a degenerative retinal condition and lost substantial vision through puberty to the point where she became totally blind, it’s normal.

“It’s never really been an issue – I don’t know any different,” she said. “Everyone has their ups and downs in life and I’ve been pretty lucky.

“I’ve worked with Consumer Affairs, I’ve been a switchboard operator, done audio typing, taught braille and computer operation. I’ve been around Australia, taken three cruises, bought, sold and built houses.

“I have an image of me as a freckle-faced 15-year-old, but now I can only go by what other people tell me I look like.”

When Dialogue in the Dark opened last year, Kate applied for a job but wasn’t hopeful. “I thought they’d want younger people, but was amazed to be taken on – and it’s so much fun!” she said.

The idea began in Hamburg in 1988 when social entrepreneur Andreas Heinecke had an encounter with a blind journalist. It changed his life and he devised a concept where blind people took charge of sighted people.

Now established in 39 countries, Dialogue in the Dark has been experienced by more than 10 million people worldwide, and has employed upwards of 10,000 people with full or partial blindness.

“Many older people are likely to experience vision loss, and for them this experience is about understanding it’s possible to move around and keep doing things,” Kate said.

“Sometimes people say how wonderful it is that I can do so much, but I’m no different from anyone else – I just do things in a different way. It’s about making the most of what you have.”

Supported by Guide Dogs Australia, Dialogue in the Dark in Harbour Town at Docklands is the only such program in the country.

School programs and business workshops are also offered.

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