Sight-loss insight

Reporter among the blindfolded lunch guests as part of CNIB vision campaign

Bonnie Belec
Published on May 1, 2014
Telegram reporter Bonnie Belec (right) interviews Dr. Sarah Hutchens as both are blindfolded during a Dining in the Dark promotional event at the Gypsy Tea Room in
St. John’s Thursday.
— Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

It’s not about being afraid of the dark, it’s about facing it, says the woman at the helm of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind’s (CNIB) health promotions and communications.

That was Debbie Ryan’s response after I turned in my prescription glasses in exchange for a black blindfold that all but eliminated my vision during the launch Thursday of Vision Health Month.

The launch included the Dining in the Dark luncheon attended by members of the media, CNIB representatives and business people — all blindfolded.

It’s an attempt to educate people about the benefits of good vision health and a reminder not to take sight for granted.

It can be nerve-wracking to spend almost two hours eating lunch at a table filled with strangers at the best of times, but it’s even worse if you can’t see them.

As I turned toward the voices at the table, all I could see was flickering lights as if I was staring up at a dark sky on a clear, starry night.

The room was alive with chatter, but the conversations were inaudible to me. I felt disoriented, isolated and alone.

I told my unknown lunch companions — CNIB board member Danny Barrett, Rod Stockley from Coast 101.1, optometrist Dr. Sarah Hutchens and Juleah Patten from Browning Harvey — I felt as though I was in a black box.

I was led to the table by Deborah Wearn, CNIB’s provincial director. She told me to grip her arm as if I was shaking hands with her elbow.

I was completely reliant on a stranger to get me to my table. I had to give unconditional trust to a person I had never met before.

As I felt my way through the cold lower level of the Gypsy Tea Room, she told me I was doing fine.

“I won’t let you walk into anything. There aren’t any steps,” Wearn said as she noticed my trepidation.

Training and helping people is what the CNIB is good at, said Ryan.

 “It doesn’t matter if you are having problems reading a book, or your doctor says you can’t drive anymore or you find it hard walking down the street, CNIB is there with vision rehab specialists to help you get your life back to normal, and it will,” she said.

Not only does the CNIB help provide new skills, it provides counselling.

“We know more about losing your sight than anyone else. That is what we do and we are the only organization in Canada that does that. Come to us,” she said.

But Ryan says some vision problems can be prevented and people need to stop taking their sight for granted.

“A recent CNIB study reported that among Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who hadn’t had an eye exam in the past two years, more than half said the reason was they believed they have good vision,” said Ryan.

“But many serious eye diseases that can cause vision loss have no symptoms and can only be detected through a comprehensive eye exam, and the fact that more than a quarter of Canadians don’t believe that regular eye exams have a major impact on reducing the risk of vision loss is shocking,” said Ryan.

As the servers came to the table, each one described as they approached what they were doing.

Before they pour my water, I hit the glass and it teeters back and forth. I’m sure my face is red because I feel hot, as I think the glass is going to crash and create a domino effect, knocking over every glass on the table.

It stops rocking.

Great, one disaster averted, I think.

They bring the food.

Please let it be bread.

It’s not.

The waiter said it’s some form of cheese ball in an appetizer spoon.

I groped at the place setting in front of me, trying to figure out how I’m going to eat it.  

“Please excuse my fingers,” I say, “but I don’t want to eat whatever this is without at least touching it first.”

Barrett, a social worker, assures me that’s OK.

Legally blind, it’s his first Dining in the Dark experience.

“I’m excited. But it can be a little anxious when you can’t see what you’re doing,” he said.

I felt the same, and was greatly relieved when I took the blindfold off.

Cindy Antle, who lost a significant portion of her vision two years ago, told me the event is a good way to expose people to the challenges.  

She said she went from being an independent, working registered nurse to someone who now uses a cane, can’t drive and relies on others to get around.

“I went to bed after reading the paper the night before, and when I woke up I couldn’t see,” she said.

“I was shocked and scared. I couldn’t understand.”

Antle was 55 at the time.

After visiting specialists, she was told it was due to inflammation around the optic nerve.

And it was permanent.

She said she was told she should consider the services offered by the CNIB.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, are you serious? Am I going to need this service?’ It took, me a few days to get my head around it, but it was the best thing I could do,” she said.

Antle completed the mobility and independent living program, as well as some technical training to help her read.

“It gave me back some independence and confidence. I couldn’t have done it without them,” she said.

Last year, Ryan said, the Dining in the Dark public event sold out, attracting about 160 people, and this year they’re hoping for the same.

Live the experience:

Who: The CNIB is hosting

What: Dining in the Dark

Where: Gypsy Tea Room, St. John’s

When: May 28

Why: To raise awareness