Dining in the Dark: Empathize from Plates to Policies

Written By Sylvia Leung 

Sara Minkara (President and Founder of ETI) hosting a dining in the dark event with a room full of Harvard Kennedy School of Government students (April 10, 2014).
Sara Minkara (President and Founder of ETI) hosting a dining in the dark event with a room full of Harvard Kennedy School of Government students (April 10, 2014).

“As an aspiring policy maker, I feel that everyone should go through dining in the dark…” said Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and Harvard Business School student Amandla Ooko-Ombaka. Amandla was one of the 60+ HKS students and friends who were blind-folded while eating a three-course meal at the April 2014 HKS Dining in the Dark event. Sara Minkara (President and Founder of ETI) and I planned this event to increase awareness and empathy for the blind and disabled.

I totally agree with Amandla. Everyone should experience dining in the dark because there’s no better way to empathize the blind than to experience being blind yourself. While attendees learned how to dine blind-folded, they grew hungry to better understand and help the blind and disabled. Throughout the three and a half hour event, our conversations progressed from plates of food, processes of life and policies of change.

Plates of Food

By eating blind-folded, attendees tapped into their under-utilized senses. Amandla commented, “I am grateful for the experience of really focusing on the sensation of eating with friends - the sound of their voices, their spatial orientation, the smell of our food, the need to be purposeful with each movement of my cutlery.” As a non-blind folded emcee of the event, I witnessed people tenderly touching their table settings to navigate their surroundings, slowly savoring their food to appreciate the flavors, and listening carefully to recognize their tablemates’ voices. I heard comments of both struggles and accomplishments. Initially, attendees appeared frustrated or anxious to fail at dining properly. However, in the end, I heard attendees cheer when they were able to accurately guess what they were eating and neatly finish their food.

Processes of Life

The blind-folded dining experience opened up a whole new conversation about the processes of life. I remember the conversation shifting when one attendee asked Sara about her personal experience as a blind person.  While Sara shared her life stories and a unique can-do attitude, I felt the audience grew more energetic, curious and compassionate. There were more thoughtful and heartfelt questions, including questions about how blind cross the street, when is it okay to offer help to a blind person and the dating experience for the blind.

Policies of Change

As the event was coming to a close, attendees started asking more action-oriented and problem-solving questions. Sara responded by urging everyone to accommodate the blind and disabled in whatever work they do. In a room full of future policymakers, I think attendees walked away with the key point that blind and disabled persons should be considered in all decision-making. Decision-making could be in the government at the local, state or national level. Decision-making could be in the private for-profit or non-profit sector. Whatever the case may be, blind and disabled persons should be considered anywhere where policies and decisions are made. I’ve learned from Sara and this event that such policy considerations should go beyond giving charity to the disabled. Instead, such policy considerations should enable the disabled to self-sustain and contribute to society.

From plates to policies, I took away so many lessons and memories from this Dining in the Dark experience. I hope everyone (including you the reader!) will attend or even host your own Dining in the Dark event.

Special thanks to the HKS Center for Public Leadership for sponsoring the Dining in the Dark event.