It’s a serious question to tackle, particularly when sporting a chocolate moustache, carrot behind my ear and half my starter on my trousers. Messy eater I may be, but at least this evening there’s an explanation – I’ve just eaten in the dark, in a restaurant unlike any other in this bright city.
Dans le Noir describes itself as a ‘sensory journey’ - dining in the pitch black, served by staff with visually impairment. It’s a place where the darkness is overwhelming, both in sense and emotion. We’re expertly guided to our table, hands on each other’s shoulders by Darren, our waiter and guide for the evening.
He is confident and agile in the space, we are fumbling and hesitant. I feel instantly disorientated and vulnerable, the simplest of tasks now almost insurmountably daunting. Pouring water is a challenge, I can’t find my cutlery, and I eat mouthfuls rendered strange by my inability to work out what goes with what on a plate I cannot see.
Under cover of darkness, or perhaps united by difference, inhibitions fade and we chat to the people next to us. They’re friendly and chat easily, but I notice a strange self-consciousness. Conversation is harder without the absence of visual cues, like the most awkward of conference calls enacted in person – I don’t know who speaks next, or wants to speak, and without sight I realise I am silenced too. As we try, and repeatedly fail, to coordinate fork or even hands with plate and face, conversation flicks to our current experience. We’re agreed that this is, in some respects at least, jolly good fun. But acknowledgement of that carries a certain shame, rooted as it is in the knowledge that we, the sighted are paying for the opportunity to experience others’ lived reality, and deriving enjoyment from doing so. We experience darkness, but not what it is to be blind (an experience surely as unique to each visually impaired person as vision is to the sighted).
Voyeuristic exploration of disability or a unique and enlightening experience?
A definition I’ve previously found helpful is that ‘privilege means not having to think about privilege’, and I’m forced in to confrontation with that here. The temporary deprivation of sight forces a realisation of the extent to which I am dependent on it, and I feel a renewed empathy that is at once powerful and problematic. The assumption by an able bodied person that ‘disability’ is viewed negatively by an individual perceived by themselves or others as disabled strays uncomfortably close to homogenising individual experiences of ability/disability, and to views of disability as ‘lesser than’. In doing so it risks perpetuating the cycles of oppression that privilege inevitably confers. With that in mind, I want to ask Darren more about himself, his experience of working here, his perspective on whether this could be or is problematic, but I’m suddenly shy and unsure of the rules of this game. I don’t want to objectify or ‘other’ him, and yet my failure to ask seems simultaneously to fail to acknowledge the elephant in the room, and renders him a silent observer in a space in which his voice could, and perhaps should, be loud. By the time we leave I feel like the space is full. Voices are everywhere, and as we are guided out I can feel my proximity to the tables of others. I think about how stark an illustration of the social model of disability this restaurant is, and how that realisation is made all the more sobering by a quick reflection on the myriad of ways in which the world at large does not extend the same courtesy to the visually impaired as Darren and his colleagues have extended to us here today. Though the centrality of visually impaired staff to the functioning of Dans le Noir is clear, that juxtaposes with everything I know about disability and employment. Here people with visual impairment are employed ‘because blind people are naturally more efficient in the darkness and are the best to do the job’. But this place succeeds in part because it is rare and unique, and in an inherently ablest society most jobs select against rather than for those whose attributes do not fit within traditional paradigms of employability. With less than of half disabled people in employment (compared to 80% of the non disabled population), just 8% of employers report having recruited a person with a disability or long-term health condition in a year. Those figures are sobering, particularly given the well-evidenced benefits of work on health and wellbeing. That disability and employment was the subject of a recent government consultation is likely of minimal comfort to the 4.6million disabled people in the UK currently out of work. 12 hours and considerable thinking later and I’m not sure I’m closer to answering my original question. Is a meal in the dark a problematic fetishisation of disability, an enlightening sensory experience or both? Dining at Dans le Noir was fun, challenging and thought provoking. It wasn’t and isn’t ethically straightforward, but confronting privilege rarely is.
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