What You Can Learn from a Blind Waitress

Learning empathy for the visually impaired by dining in darkness.

Posted Oct 04, 2011

"You are about to enter a different kind of darkness—a darkness so pitch black, you will not be able to see a thing. Place your hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you. We will walk slowly. Ready? Now, follow me, I will show you to your table." 

What started as a curiosity taught me that nothing gives you greater empathy for the visually impaired than being functionally blind for several hours.

Many of us have wondered what it's like to be blind. Dining at the Jaffa Blackout Restaurant means becoming a visitor to the world of the visually impaired. Once you sit down in the pitch black conditions and realize you cannot even see your finger in front of your face (I tried wagging my finger and smacked myself on the nose) you begin to realize the experience is no novelty for the people who work there (all the waiters are visually impaired) but a basic fact of daily life. Indeed, the Blackout Restaurant has dual purposes.

Removing our sense of sight heightens our senses of taste, touch, and smell and it allows us to experience food in an entirely different way, a worthwhile exercise unto itself. However more importantly, the total darkness allows diners to experience real empathy for the visually impaired. Although I've previously written about empathy (How to Test Your Empathy), this experience was profound enough to gain not just empathy but also insight as to how someone feels, thinks and functions without sight.

Other "eating in the dark" experiences use blindfolds and low lighting (which is drastically different than the experience of utter darkness) and non-visually impaired waiters (who use infrared goggles). Both those options might focus the diner on the non-visual aspects of their meal but they offer little in the way of empathy and insight.

The Simple Challenge of Pouring a Glass of Water

What made the experience at the Jaffa Blackout Restaurant even more personally educational was that several things went wrong during the meal. After being seated we were told there was a pitcher of water at the far end of the table. We each had an empty glass. But how is one to know when to stop pouring before water spills over the top?

I had the brilliant idea of putting my finger in the glass as I poured so I could stop once the water touched my fingertip. I proudly announced my solution to the waitress. "Um...actually what we do is just pour half a glass." She was polite enough not to mention that doing so was also more sanitary than my finger dipping technique but I got the message nonetheless.

One of my companions immediately tried the "half glass" technique which would have worked perfectly had she remembered another important aspect of pouring water: Make sure the pitcher makes contact with the glass! She learned this lesson the hard way by pouring a half-glass of water right onto our table. Our waitress was hovering nearby and was over with towels and a fresh pitcher of water before we knew it. Apparently, this happens often.

The Importance of Verbal Communication and Tone

Another unique aspect of the experience was how much more important verbal communication became. For example, when food arrives at a regular restaurant little is verbalized beyond the name of the dish. Here the waitress said: "Please sit back, I will be serving from your right. I'm placing a medium sized plate in front of you. Don't worry about food ending up on the table, it will. We clean the table between each course. If you drop a knife or fork, don't try to find them on the floor, just let me know and we'll bring you another." 

Between the four people in my party, we dropped knives and forks three times (sleeves can brush a utensil off the table rather easily—and yes, we eventually did roll up our sleeves). Although we felt a little abashed by our multiple utensil droppings, our waitress convincingly conveyed true reassurance when saying, "It's really no problem, it happens all the time," by using a very clear sweet tone in her voice (which was necessary if she wanted to convey reassurance as she could not rely on facial expressions to do so).

Highly Developed Spatial Memory

It didn't take long for us to realize we would have to pay close attention when we put down a utensil or a glass so we remembered where we placed it. 'Fishing around' for such things invites drops or spills. It had not occurred to me that being unable to see required from the person a substantial use of short-term spatial memory. It was a fascinating insight into the kinds of basic challenges visually impaired people contend with.

The meal was lengthy and at some point our waitress checked in on us to see if we needed to be escorted outside for a restroom break (thankfully, the restroom had dim light—some spills diners can do without). I asked to visit the restroom and a waiter who was a new trainee showed me out. I put my hands on his shoulders and he took a few steps, and hesitated. He turned and bumped into a table. He turned again, took two steps and bumped into another one.

"I'm so very sorry but I think I'm a little lost," he admitted. He rang a little bell (every waiter carries one with them). Moments later our waitress joined us and guided us out. It was both touching and fascinating to realize the visually impaired need to learn each new environment they enter and that even a moment's confusion can cause significant disorientation.

I left the Blackout Restaurant feeling schooled in many ways. I had expanded my understanding and appreciation for the tactile and multi-sensory experience good food can and should provide. I had gained numerous insights into the challenges the visually impaired face on a daily basis as well as much empathy for how disciplined and focused they must be when performing simple tasks others take for granted.

But most importantly, our waitress made us feel cared in a profound way the likes of which we had not encountered in any other dining experience. Her command of the environment and outstanding communication skills allowed her to assume a role greater than mere waitress—for a few hours she was our leader and guide.

The Blackout Restaurant was a culinary experience and an immersive empathy lesson in one. It is incredibly effective in giving its patrons insights into the world of the visually impaired and as such it was truly an eye-opener.

UPDATE: This was not the last time I saw our waitress from the Blackout Restaurant. I met her again several months later when visiting another unique enterprise: A call-center that employs solely people with disabilities—where she had begun working. I discuss this unusual call-center and some of their amazing employees at length in Chapter 7 of The Squeaky Wheel.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

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