Blog - Dans le noir – a universal design experience

I recently attended the Universal Design Conference in Auckland. Universal design – sometimes known as inclusive design – is all about designing anything, so that everyone can easily use it. Think of a building with a shallow ramp up to the front door rather than steps. Everyone can use that, whereas someone in a wheelchair or someone with poor vision would struggle to use the steps.

One of the conference experiences which will remain with me for a long time was the conference dinner, “dans le noir”. The dining room was set in a pitch black room which I entered into by holding onto the shoulder of the person in front of me, who held onto the shoulder of the person in front of them, and so on. I then had to feel for my chair to sit down. Our waiters were all either completely blind, or partially blind, so how they remembered where the different orders went to on the table, or managed to guide a group of 12 people to a long table, I’m not quite sure. A mix of experience, intuition and training I imagine.

The finer points of dining

Once seated, myself and the other diners were instructed on how to pour out water without overfilling the glass (dip one finger in to gauge the water level). Then the entrée arrived. I found it was a challenge to firstly find the food on the plate, and then to decide, given I was unable to see my plate, whether to use fingers or cutlery! The entrée a tortilla chips and dips combo,and – again – it was very hard to find where the dip actually was on the plate. As to flavour, this was quite hard to gauge. I’m a very visual person when it comes to food, so not being able to see what it was that I was eating really made me feel I was missing out on something. Texture also makes a big difference to the food experience. (Note to self, keep using different textures of food to maintain interest. And if you’re a rest home owner reading this, try and avoid making your food too boring by making it all mushy and one texture. For me, I found that was half the enjoyment of eating gone!

The main course arrived and after some investigation with my fingers – there was no other way to know what was on the plate – I realised that there were some slices of meat and some vegetables; some mashed, presumably, potatoes, some whole vegetables and some crunchy ‘things’ – later discovered to be toasted walnuts. The big challenge for me here was to once again connect the fork and knife with the meat to cut it. I resorted to using my fingers most of the time as the easiest way to get around this. I couldn’t feel what was at the end of the fork when I was trying to connect!

Dessert was the final challenge. This smelt deliciously chocolatey but as it incorporated something runny, it was not so easy to eat with fingers! Fortunately I managed to move my spoon tentatively around the plate and gather up a sponge cakelike dessert and sauce without too many misses.

A twist on blind tasting

For this dinner I had chosen not to order wine as well, but I am going to try drinking wine blind at home as this would add another dimension to really tasting what you are drinking. I believe the wine with the entrée was a rose and I heard several people comment that it was hard to recognise that one.

Another fascinating aspect of this experience was that everyone talked with everyone else at the table with less reservations than you might normally find at a conference, possibly as we were all sharing this experience.

If you want to find out more or experience this yourself Dans le Noir are the organisation who catered and ran the dinner.

It was a fascinating experience, and certainly made me appreciate having sight even more. I’m going to be eating more slowly and really appreciating the act of eating mindfully from now on!

Be mindful in your practice

It really was a powerful way to get just a tiny idea of what it might be like for a blind or vision impaired person to experience dining out, or indeed, just everyday eating. It has certainly got me thinking about how I can help design workspaces for those who are unable to see. And if you are yourself vision impaired, I would encourage you to share your own personal experiences with the office designers or managers where you work, as they may well have no real understanding of the types of challenges you face with everyday tasks.

Overall, whichever field of workplace wellness you are interested in, the lessons learnt will stay with you, and the considerations you come away with will inform your future workspace design thinking.