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Seeing in the dark: why destinations need to think accessibility

Those of us lucky enough to have been born with our primary senses – hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste – have probably all played the same mind game: which would we least like to lose?

The five options are usually whittled down to two: hearing and sight.

A music lover, I have always come down on the side of hearing. Of course, not being able to see anything would be a bummer, but at least we have braille for reading. Or audiobooks.

In truth, it is an impossible question to answer. Not because one can’t imagine what it is like to be deaf or blind, but because one can’t know what it is like to be deaf or blind – unless one is.

And, of course, being born deaf or blind is not the same as losing one’s hearing or sight. Here again, impossible to say which is worse. Better to have loved and lost or never to have loved at all?

Yet that assumes those born without hearing or sight regret their predicament. An assumption too far, surely? Something else to consider, one person’s deafness or blindness, or partial deafness and partial blindness, will not be the same as someone else’s experience of those impairments.

These were the frenzied thoughts that filled my head after taking part in a Dialogue in the Dark workshop at Villa Bonn, a late 19th Century mansion in Frankfurt, during the IMEX trade show.

I was guest of IAPCO, the association of professional congress organisers, and the business events teams from Dubai and Melbourne, both of whom have made accessibility a focus of their work.

Along with twenty or so other guests I was blindfolded, given a white stick and told to make my way into an upstairs room that had been scrupulously blacked out so that no light could enter.  All we had to go on were voices guiding us to one of several cocktail tables. The voices belonged to people who were either partially or totally blind and who, therefore, were not remotely freaking out.

I was freaking out, just a little. I imagined I was walking in a calamitously wrong direction, heading for a flight of stairs, a trailing cable, or a stone pillar. Any moment now I was going to feel what it was like to suddenly lose one’s sight and one way or another it was going to ruddy well hurt.

Except soon, the gentle, reassuring voice had guided me to a table around which seven other guests were soon assembled. The relief was palpable and there was much giggling and making light of it all.

We were given two tasks: the first to arrange small hessian bags in weight order, each having been given just the one; the second to identify the smells contained in small boxes, note the initial letters, and make a word. The first task was accomplished relatively quickly, which is to say about ten minutes. It was fun trying to work out who had which bag and how we were going to put them in some order, but the darkness, even once we had removed our blindfolds, was absolute and oppressive. It felt like an absurd, unnecessary obstacle: why can’t we just turn on the lights?

The second task took longer. In this instance something rather strange happened. None of us was sure about any of the smells we were supposed to be identifying, perhaps with the exception of peppermint. And yet our guesses, and that’s what we felt they were, all, somehow, proved correct.  It is said our senses compensate for those that are lost. In this case, our olfactory neurons must have gone into overdrive and were telling us what we didn’t quite trust ourselves to believe.

Our tasks complete we were told to make our way back out of the room, which we just about managed without bumping into each other. But that thirty minutes or so was an intense experience and threw a metaphorical spotlight on how delegates, with any kind of physical or intellectual impairment, must sometimes struggle to make sense of our cities and venues and how destinations and meeting planners, indeed all of us, owe it to them to make their lives as straightforward as possible.