“The biggest problem for a blind diner has very little to do with any mechanical or logistical difficulty of blindness, and instead centers on the condescending, exclusionary, or simply ignorant attitudes and behaviors of sighted people.”
“But when everything works, however that might happen — an up-to-date braille or large-print menu, available without fuss; an accessible website; a well-trained waitstaff — the public perception and experience of blindness shifts from estrangement to normalcy and belonging.”
Back when I was a doctoral student, I attended a “Blind Café” event with my then-boyfriend (now-husband) Jason. We were collaborating on some disability simulation research, and we considered using the Blind Café as a field site for data collection, so we wanted to check it out first.
I remember spending a long time waiting in a lobby and being told the rules of engagement for the event: no cell phones, and if we needed to leave the dining room to use the bathroom, or for any other reason, we were instructed to flag down a server for assistance first. Then, we walked through three layers of curtains into a dark room, in a conga line. We were seated at tables, with a bowl of lukewarm soup in front of each of us. Bread was also available. After a while, servers brought us an unidentified vegetarian meal.
I listened to my fellow diners struggling to pass bread and to find their plates and drinking cups in the dark, laughing at their predicament. To distract myself from their sad commentaries on what people thought it was like to live my life as a blind person, I tried to focus on my food. My tongue distrusted the taste of the unidentified ingredients, and my teeth were wary of the odd textures. I forced myself to nibble, thinking of how much more I enjoy my food when I know what’s in it.
After dinner there was a music show, but Jason and I decided it was time to go home. We needed to be up early for school the next day. Being told we had to get assistance to leave the table made me want to rebel. Jason and I stood up, and I used my cane to cover both of us as we walked back toward the curtains. Eventually Jason picked up on a tiny bit of stray light, and between that little bit of light and my white cane, we independently got out of there.
When I read this article by Andrew Leland, I immediately thought of the stark differences between my Blind Café experience and my many joyous experiences eating out in restaurants. I have dined out hundreds of times in my life: with family, with sighted friends, with blind friends, with a mix of blind and sighted people, with coworkers, strangers, first dates, and everything in between. When I eat out, choosing my meal is at least half the fun—an opportunity Blind Café did not allow. When I dine out, I can freely leave the table, or walk around. I don’t struggle with the mechanics of finding my dishes. Restaurant meals can fulfill a desire for daring culinary adventure, or for the comforting predictability of a chain-restaurant meal to soothe and distract me from the worries of life. Besides the physical and sensory satisfaction of the food, I have many happy memories of social occasions and fellowship shared at restaurant tables.
Andrew Leland also describes some of the real barriers we can encounter as blind diners. Fortunately, the barriers of microaggressions, inaccessible menus, and discrimination are all barriers we, as a society, can collectively overcome. When waiters go out of their way to make my blind friends and I feel welcome—like at times when they’ve read us menus with dramatic flare—it confirms in my mind that my friends and I belong.