By Liza Shevchuk
On the evening of September 12th, twenty-eight students, postdocs, faculty, and staff of the Vision Science Department gathered at the UC Faculty Club for the first ever “Dining in the Dark” experience at UC Berkeley. This event was the idea of Vision Science PhD candidate, Reem Almagati, and was inspired by “Blindekuh,” or Blind Cow, the first ever Dining in the Dark restaurant, which opened in Zurich, Switzerland in 1999. Ever since the inception of Dining in the Dark, several similar restaurants have opened up across the world, including one in the heart of San Francisco called Opaque. As some of our Vision Science researchers are helping us better understand vision impairments or are developing therapeutics for blinding diseases, the Vision Science Student Government felt compelled to bring this experience to our campus, giving individuals the opportunity to experience a meal without vision.
“Dining in the Dark was one of the best experiences I’ve had while at the Herbert Wertheim School of Optometry and Vision Science.” - Dr. Raul Rodriguez, Postdoctoral Researcher
Through generous donations to the Vision Science Annual Fund, the Herbert Wertheim School of Optometry and Vision Science’s Development & Alumni Relations (DAR) team was able to organize and execute the very first Dining in the Dark event. We gathered in the Howard Room of the UC Berkeley Faculty Club where I got a few minutes to familiarize myself with my seated environment before placing the blindfolds over my eyes. The room’s lights were turned off to minimize any possibility of seeing through the cracks of the blindfolds. For the next hour, I tried to navigate through my utensils, glasses, and plates, slowly devouring my mystery meal. Many times when bringing the fork to my face, I was surprised to feel that it was empty! After many of these failed attempts, I chose to continue eating my (what tasted like) salmon, carrot, broccoli, squash, and zucchini with my hands.
At one point, I thought I was picking up another vegetable, but when biting through it I felt a sour zing! That’s right, I had just bitten into a lemon slice. Throughout the process, individuals would share with their tablemates some guesses as to what they believed they were eating. Everyone’s meals were slightly different according to their dietary restrictions, so we would hear of a variety of different foods. Surprisingly, many participants said they couldn’t quite pinpoint what they were eating.
“It’s some kind of grain…” - Matangi Kumar, Vision Science PhD Student
At the end of the night, attendees were still left guessing what they had eaten since it was never told to us. Once we removed our blindfolds, we saw that some food ended up on the table, floor, or laps of the individuals.
“[Dining in the Dark] helped me understand what everyday tasks might be like for visually impaired people.” - Hannah Doyle, EECS PhD Student
Altogether, the energy in the room at the end of the evening was very positive. I had lots of fun challenging myself and personally felt like I increased my respect for blind patients who have to go about their daily routines playing guessing games in this way. As a PhD student who is working in Dr. John Flannery’s lab to discover a novel AAV-mediated gene therapy for dry age-related macular degeneration, a lot of the patients I am conducting research for are partially or entirely blind. Understanding their day-to-day struggles a little better makes me feel more fulfilled in what I’m working towards, which is discovering innovative strategies that will potentially offer treatments for patients whose vision is threatened by diseases such as age-related macular degeneration. I’m very excited to play a role in bringing this event back to the Vision Science Department next year so that more people in our community can experience this and allow it to fuel their research efforts!
“Dining in the dark was a phenomenal and insightful experience. It made me have a greater appreciation for vision in everyday tasks.” - Etchi Ako, Vision Science PhD Student
“Thanks to the VS student leadership and the DAR team for putting on this event. It was a memorable experience. Even though this was a fleetingly brief activity in a risk-free setting, it forced us all to appreciate at least some of the challenges faced without access to our most important sense of vision; from the simple challenges of determining what it was that we were eating (I still insist that it was beef) to the more profound challenges of trying to maintain a social connection with everyone at the table even though we could not see them. We need to do more of this!” - Dr. Austin Roorda, Vision Science Professor