The menus of restaurants can be a difficult challenge for people who are blind. It doesn’t need to be this way.
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In 1999, the first “dining in darkness” restaurant opened in Zurich, Switzerland. Blindekuh, or the Blind Cow, the German name of Blind Man’s Bluff, was extremely popular and inspired dozens of similar ventures to open in cities around Europe and the world. The same procedure is followed by diners at each of these restaurants, as well as the ubiquitous dining in-darkness fundraising events: they are asked to put their phones and any other light-emitting devices into lockers and then proceed, conga-line-style through a pitch-black room with the staff of low-vision and blind servers. The blind waitstaff guides diners to their seats and serves mystery dishes they taste in complete darkness. The experiences people have at these restaurants can range from awe to horror. Journalists have described heightened feelings and even a sense of liberation. “You are just a voice like any other in the darkness,” wrote a BBC reporter, “finally released from your body.”
Blindekuh, founded by a pastor who is blind, aims to create empathy for blind people. Dining in the dark has provided jobs for people who are blind, chronically underemployed population. Adam Linn, a writer, told me how working a few evenings a week as a server at Dans le Noir in New York helped him get through difficult years of being a single parent. Another blind server saved her earnings to buy a Bronx condo. Eater NY created a running joke about its hatred of Dans le Noir. The restaurant was dubbed “the worst experience of my life” by two editors. “The food serves as a distraction to your fear,” said one. “Not something that will nourish you.”
It’s fair to say that Dans le Noir NYC sounded awful: it was overpriced and hot and crowded with out-of-towners drunkenly trying to navigate their big city trawls. Linn confirmed that the restaurant’s management failed soon after it opened and was “finished before it even started.” But, behind the criticism of Dans le Noir, there were feelings of fear and alienation: anxiety about losing independence (diners needed to be guided to the restroom), claustrophobia (I confess to feeling slightly sick when we were led into the thick black curtain and encouraged to grope to our chairs,” a second journalist wrote), as well as an infantilizing but approving sense In the year that followed the closure of Dans le Noir NYC, the National Federation of the Blind adopted a formal resolution during its convention in Dallas. “Be it resolved,” the NFB stated, “that this organization condemns and deplores the usage of Dining in the Dark in such a way as to diminish the innate normality of the blind in our society.”
Blind dining is a reality for blind people who live it daily, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s not the same as dining in darkness. With some practice, forks and knives are easily handled without vision. And if they’re pointed in the correct direction, blind people rarely need assistance to find the bathroom. Blind people can enjoy their food like sighted diners who have been used to tasting and smelling their food.
Linn, blinded at 11, soon discovered that he enjoyed eating out more than his other hobbies. In the early 1980s, he lost his sight between the second and third Star Wars movies. He was disappointed by the movie experience as a blind person. “Ewoks are just not that cool when you’re a blind person,” he said. A good restaurant, however, was a revelation. He and his wife took a culinary tour of Crete on a recent visit. He says that he has never been a big honey fan but that this honey was delicious. His voice is caramelizing as he recalls the experience. It was almost like a liquid.
Blind diners face several challenges, but the biggest one is the attitude and behavior of sighted people. They are often condescending and exclusionary. Blind people often have trouble getting past the front door. Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act’s explicit protection of disabled people bringing service animals into restaurants. Workers who don’t know the law or are categorically against any animal frequently refuse to let them in. Blind diners are still subjected to various microaggressions once they enter a restaurant. Servers often speak loudly to blind people under the unjustifiable assumption that a lack of vision is also a hearing problem.
Hoby Wedler is a blind chemist who teaches at a university. He recalls a server pulling his Cane to guide him around the restaurant. Wedler, a blind chemist and educator, wrote an illuminating article on fine dining for blind people. “When we got to the table,” Wedler said, “the server set the tip of my Cane on the Table and asked me if i needed to explore the top of the Table.” With remarkable patience, Wedler explained that the Cane would be better on the floor. He remarked drily, “Locating my wine glass would be difficult to say the least.”
When we see blind people, we often wonder how they can manage.
When it comes time to place an order, one of the most commonplace – and frustrating – mistakes that restaurants make is when they are faced with the unfamiliar situation of serving a diner who is blind. As the server walks around the dining table, they ask one of the sighted guests, “And what will he have?”
Stephanie Jones, an entrepreneur and blindness rehabilitation counselor, said this happens daily. Jones, a blindness rehabilitation counselor, and entrepreneur, said it always happens. She eats out often for work with Helen Fernety, her sighted business associate. Fernety has become used to saying, “I’m not sure — why don’t you ask her?” when servers ask what Jones wants.
It’s not surprising that the question is hurtful — demeaning and ableist — but it’s also harmful. Like the majority of sighted people in the world, restaurant servers often and fundamentally misunderstand a blind person’s basic competency. We often look at blind people and wonder how they can manage.