Dining in the Dark (Part 2)

Continued reflections on community meals & visual impairment… From David Neufeld

Personal Safety

Personal safety while dining among people with unpredictable behaviours is a concern. Vision loss makes it difficult to gauge situations and escape conflict. A sighted patron who has become agitated may misinterpret the presence of someone with a visual impairment, and may become hostile. Encouraging supportive participation from the wider community as dining companions not only can help those with visual impairments, but can also normalize tense environments with their presence.

Finding the Table

Visually impaired patrons appreciate being asked if they need help getting to an empty seat. Sometimes they know where there is an empty seat, while other times it is too difficult to know where the seats are and how to get to them. Asking is the best way to find out. If they want help, don’t grab them, but offer an elbow for them to hold as you lead them. Sitting at a quieter table with guests willing to assist and provide conversation is also appreciated.

Based on the venue and the person’s capability some diners may readily accept an offer to bring food to their table, while others will want to get their own or be guided to the serving area.

Finding Food at the Table

Many people with visual impairments rely heavily on their remaining sight. Good lighting and high visual contrast table settings are helpful. As shown in the picture above, identifying food with low vision is challenging. The photo on the left shows what a sighted person would see, while the photo on the right shows the reduced information that a visually impaired person may perceive of the same meal. This can result in an awkward moment when reaching into a bowl of chips, only to plunge one’s fingers into a soggy dish of warm hummus.

Patrons with no functional vision rely on being told where food is on their plate according to a clock face system. For instance, mashed potatoes at the 4:00 position, roast beef at 9:00, and carrots at 12:00. Some foods can be tricky to handle without vision, so volunteers could offer to cut up parts of the meal. The dining guest is the best source of information on how you can help them with any difficult menu items.

For a “taste” of dining without sight in Vancouver, consider visiting the Dark Table restaurant where the meal is served in the dark by visually impaired servers.

Speaking the Written Word

Reading ability ranges from difficult to impossible for someone with a visual impairment. Written menus and instructions should be read aloud. Visually impaired patrons should be offered assistance to fill out any forms or sign-up sheets, instead of being asked to find and fill them out themselves.

Parting Thoughts

I have met only one other visually impaired person at community meals, and both of us rely on our remaining vision. A few other visually impaired acquaintances recall church community meals, but most did not have any experience with community dining. Some did not have an economic or social need for a community meal, but many mentioned personal safety and accessible ambiance as concerns that would keep them away. For the most part, there was little awareness of community meals. Spreading awareness of community meals suitable for those with visual impairments according to the previous issues of safety, ambience, accessibility and assistance may bring a few more patrons who could benefit from sharing food together.

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