The first thing that hits me early in the morning on Saturday, March 11, is the temperature. Six degrees, despite the blue skies and bright sunlight. As I wait for signs of life from my stubbornly frozen car, the landscape around me comes into view: a world encased in ice from the snow and sleet that weekend.
“How will my date navigate this hostile terrain?” a voice inside my head repeatedly asks.
These thoughts are triggered by the fact that a stranger who is blind is scheduled to meet me at Boston’s Museum of Science at 10 a.m. to tour the Chocolate Exhibit together. We’re also meeting up with some visually impaired students she teaches in an after-school class through the Our Space Our Place program.
“Blind Date” is the clever name for this occasion: a day devoted to getting sighted and not-sighted people together to enjoy socially connecting; a day dedicated to experiencing and facilitating inclusion.
I’d been made aware of Blind Date as the finale to the March 6-11 BlindNewWorld Week, a first-of-its-kind undertaking aiming to shatter misconceptions about blindness, organized by Perkins School for the Blind and championed by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, along with multiple blindness advocacy groups. The Museum of Science is among several regional museums and other partnering organizations offering discounts to encourage the Commonwealth’s citizens to participate in Blind Date activities to culminate BlindNewWorld Week.
A date with no flowers, but lots of chocolate…
Fast-forward to the Museum of Science, 9:55 a.m.: I’m trotting from the parking garage to the Museum’s lobby, dodging through a chaotic crowd of families, hearing a cacophony of voices and the poundings of many heavy snow boots, eyes focused on the atrium lobby. With the frigid temperatures, it seems that an inordinate percentage of the greater Boston population has decided that an indoor day at the Museum of Science is the best way to spend a Saturday.
Again, I’m thinking of my date and how she moves through this world. My “date” is Cheryl Cumings, a self-described African-American woman with a white cane. I’ve been connected to her through the Perkins Library, of which she is a patron.
Across the lobby, I’m relieved to see Cheryl, surrounded by about a half-dozen teenage students who are also visually impaired. They’ve just arrived and are checking in with Museum staff. “Hi Cheryl, it’s Melanie,” I announce.
“Hi! Glad you could make it,” Cheryl replies. We clasp hands and so our date begins.
Cheryl has planned everything to perfection. Two Museum staffers, Susan and Jessica, will help guide us through the Chocolate Exhibit, providing a 3:1 ratio of students to guides. We quickly split into two groups and Cheryl asks me to act as her sighted guide – which means I offer my right elbow and stand to the left of Cheryl, so she can use her white cane for guidance with her right hand while also relying on me for navigation assistance through the crowds and the exhibit obstacles.
The students are curious; Nikia asks if I can be her sighted guide as well. Andrew, Dior, Carl, Anthony and Mo are excited to explore and interested in how the group will be divided. All of the students have clear interests in socializing with each other and are a bit concerned about being separated. In order for everyone to get the most out of the exhibit experience, however, the intimate ratios prove essential.
The two subgroups quickly become separated as we move through the Chocolate Exhibit, with the guides focused on ensuring that the students and Cheryl can “see” the exhibit in meaningful ways. We use tactile experiences as much as possible to explore the exhibit items that are accessible to touch. And where that isn’t possible, we rely on descriptions and question-answer investigations.
One of the exhibit highlights is an abacus of sorts, strung with individual cacao beans; we learn that these precious beans were a form of currency in Central and South America before Western explorers arrived. The students and Cheryl enjoy problem-solving, counting off the beans to determine how many cacao beans were needed to buy different combinations of goods such as eggs and fresh avocadoes.
Another highlight comes when students are able to crank the handle of a cacao bean grinder and understand its mechanics, while also feeling and shaking dried cacao bean husks and listening to the beans rattling around inside them. Toward the end of the exhibit, everyone enjoys exploring the ultra-huge “wall” of packaged chocolates, fluted wrappers and all, some with coconuts and other confections sprinkled on top, others featuring icing patterns or embedded nuts.
Of course, the experience is not complete until we convene at the Museum’s café to enjoy – you guessed it – delicious hot chocolate in celebration of a successful visit.
Lunch with a new friend
Once Cheryl and I have escorted the students to their van transport home, we head off to meet some friends at Watertown’s Not Your Average Joe’s, a restaurant chain supporting Blind Date efforts by offering two entrees for the price of one to Blind Date participants on March 11.
During lunch, we’re able to spend time talking and learning more about each other. Cheryl’s friends, who are also blind, have just returned from a trip to Hawaii with their guide dog. We learn they’ve actually been to Hawaii three times – and so has their dog, which is a major accomplishment since Hawaii used to require weeks of animal quarantine for any incoming pets. This couple actually propelled the initiative for Hawaii to change its quarantine requirements to allow guide dogs to visit with proof of up-to-date veterinarian records and vaccine treatment.
During lunch, I also find out that Cheryl is married to someone who is blind; he works at Perkins School for the Blind, one of the region’s most significant employers of individuals who are blind or visually impaired.
The end of the date – and an opportunity to shift someone else’s perspective
After lunch, I drive Cheryl home, the journey filled with easy conversation and shared perspectives. Temperatures have not budged throughout the day, wind gusts are tearing at traffic lights and buffeting street lamps and the icy landscape has hardened to a kind of slick magma. Cheryl tells me that her apartment building is conveniently located on a main thoroughfare in Boston with a side “carriage lane” that allows for vehicle parking and passenger discharge.
As we approach her building, I notice that several orange barrels and some yellow tape are strung across the carriage lane at curbside, blocking most of the entry to the sidewalk. I offer to walk her to the door and we make our way carefully over the ice through a small sliver of open space between two parked cars. Her front door is maybe 15 feet away. As we say our goodbyes, Cheryl interjects, “They’re beeping at you already!”
I realize that a car has pulled up behind me and is impatiently awaiting my return, the driver honking and staring intently at Cheryl and me as we part. “They’ll have to wait a few more seconds!” I reply, and we both vow to reconnect soon.
Walking back to my car, I approach the waiting vehicle and quietly inquire, “Did you notice that I was escorting a blind person with a white cane to the door?”
Though he’d rolled down his window, he never responded to my question, and I quickly turned and started my car. As I drove on, I couldn’t help but wonder how that person might have interacted with us had he participated in a Blind Date and spent time with someone who is blind or visually impaired.
Melanie Shaw is Director of Communications at Perkins School for the Blind