By Ileana Lobkowicz
It is hard to imagine a life in total darkness. For the blind, this is a living reality.
A person so afflicted knows nothing of the visual gifts the world has to offer: the nodding heads of sunflowers, the details of an architectural relic, the sunrise over a distant shore. The world as we—the sighted—know it is often an underappreciated feast for the eyes.
Vision, more practically, allows us to experience, understand, and interpret the world. It is a tool to help protect us from danger and a conduit through which we can connect to our surroundings. Without it, we are forced to rely on our remaining senses.
So, how does one adapt to life without sight? The best way to know is to try it out for yourself.
Neviditelná výstava (the “invisible exhibition”) offers visitors an hour-long journey in total darkness, led by blind or partially blind guides. Here, you can gain authentic insight into an invisible world.
Upon arrival, our group was asked to leave all our belongings in lockers—stripping ourselves of any materialistic comforts that could taint our experience. We were ushered into the first of seven pitch-black rooms, each uniquely furnished to simulate different environments. The darkness was suddenly punctuated by an elusive yet soothing voice. “Hello and welcome!” he said. Although we couldn’t see him, this was our guide: Luky Vámoš, a nine-year veteran of Neviditelná výstava.
We were beckoned into our new environment, advised to use one hand on the adjacent wall to guide us and the other suspended in front of us to avoid collision. I felt like I was about to attempt a blind obstacle course. Vigilant, attentive on my feet, I ventured into the darkness, the unknown.
The first space, as we came to learn, was set up as a kitchen. I let my hands slide along the counter space, reaching up to open cabinets as if they were secret compartments. A metal kettle and a large frying pan sat on the smooth stovetop, prompting Luky’s first question.
“How do you know that your food is cooked?”
A number of suggestions were voiced and confirmed. Listen to the sizzle and touch for firmness.
“And what about coffee?” continued Luky. “How do I know if my cup is filled?”
The group’s consensus of a foolproof method: stick your finger in the cup (but not long enough to burn it).
My nose was suddenly drawn to an earthy smell emanating from a basket of produce. I stuck my hand into it and pulled out an onion, feeling the flaking, papery peels of its skin with my fingers. My vision wasn’t needed to figure out what it was.
Now that I had adjusted to the darkness, I could no longer sense whether my eyelids were open or closed. This made me wonder why we often consciously close our eyes when we anticipate a daunting experience—cliff jumping, a roller coaster, bracing ourselves for a shot at the doctor’s office. The darkness somehow allows us to escape the reality of what we are confronting.
Other times, we close our eyes not as a tool to cope with our fears, but to enhance our awareness. Think about when you smell flowers; sing a song; practice meditation. The eyes almost distract us from what we are trying to pay attention to. By blocking out visual stimuli, we can better focus on another sense. Here, the smell and touch of the onion somehow felt more potent than if I was merely looking at it.
As we continued, I felt like I was part of a play, and each room presented a new act with different props. The next scene introduced a plot twist, one that required a different kind of alertness. I could hear honking cars, bell-ringing trams, the rapid ticking of crosswalk signals. I found myself clumsily weaving through the traffic snarls of a metropolitan city.
It was disorienting, leaving the previous comfort of a private home, and entering what felt like an outdoor public space, with less control over my environment. Where touch, up until now, had been my trusted navigational tool, hearing became my new companion.
The space felt vastly bigger, but I wasn’t sure why. Luky described his reliance on echolocation marks—using sound waves to determine the location and size of objects in an environment.
“You can listen to the sound of your footsteps to determine your distance from the wall,” he said, as an example. There was a self-assuredness in his voice that was comforting.
My heart palpitations slowly subsided as we entered a sanctuary of nature.I could hear chirping birds, a rushing river, distant crickets. In darkness, the sound carried, with more resonance. The ground beneath me was no longer flat, but uneven, textured, and three dimensional, resembling the vegetative habitat of a forest.
The journey’s denouement was at once unexpected and entertaining.
“Now you can order a drink,” said Luky, standing behind a bar. “We have beer, coffee, soda…”
The stumbling attempts to find a high-top seat were palpable in the darkness. The person sitting next to me ordered an iced tea. I could hear her twist the cap off the top of the bottle. Settled and no longer worried about employing our Darwinian survival strategies, our focus shifted toward conversation.
“What of your remaining senses did you rely on the most?” I asked the group. I almost felt like I was unintentionally moderating a panel of speakers. Touch was the unanimous response, but not for Luky.
“I use hearing most effectively,” he said.
Originally from Kladno, a city 25 kilometers west of Prague, Luky wasn’t always blind. At the age of six, he accidentally fell into a sharp toy which punctured his eye. The other was already damaged from glaucoma.
“I was afraid I’d be dependent on others, afraid I’d have no friends,” said Luky, as he recalled his early years of blindness.
Traveling is already stressful enough for the sighted, but for the blind, it requires an even greater dependence on memory.
“I memorize the metro lines,” said Luky. “The better memory you have, the more self-sufficient you become.”
But not all blind people share the same explorative spirit.
“People who are born blind are more afraid of unknown places,” said Luky. “My girlfriend is blind from birth, so when she is in a new environment, she needs to ‘practice’ it.”
The common assumption is that blind people can’t experience the same things as sighted people. That isn’t always the case.
“Most of the time we live the same ordinary lives,” said Luky. “We visit cinemas and theaters; we drink and entertain ourselves in almost the same way.”
Luky proceeded to describe a common leisurely pastime—watching a movie. But, instead of “watching,” Luky listens and uses his imagination to interpret the plot. I felt like I was doing the same thing at that very moment, only I was trying to discern Luky instead of a storyline.
The end of our tour was initiated, but our exit was a struggle. Luky offered his hand, which I took firmly. With witty self-deprecation, he asked “Are you sure you can trust a blind person?”
We re-emerged into the bright daylight. The contrast was jarring, and it took a minute of slow readjustment and excessive blinking. It was the first time we saw Luky—a clearly intentional part of the experience to show that you may have already formed an impression of your guide’s appearance. (I absolutely did.)
My incessant line of questioning continued post-tour, but prompted an unexpected response from Luky.
“No one has really asked me about my experience before.”
His statement speaks volumes—a blind person who feels unseen. Therein lies the uniqueness of this experience: a window into a world to which we are blind.
I asked Luky why he joined Neviditelná výstava.
“I was really eager to show people how we live,” he said. “I always thought it was weird to be blind, but here, people showed me it can be inspiring.”
Luky is blind in sight, but clear in his vision: for visitors to better understand the extraordinary human capacity to adapt and persevere.
You can never fully adopt someone else’s reality. But, however temporal, this experience opened my eyes to a world I didn’t see. Rather than pity an affliction, I became a student of it.
Neviditelná výstava is less about showing our differences, and more about building an empathy bridge between the sighted and unsighted world.
In addition to tours, Neviditelná výstava also offers an “invisible dining” experience and corporate team building events. For more information, visit their website.