Jó reggelt (Good morning)! I spent the month of July in Budapest, Hungary, a vibrant European city with plenty of amazing sights to see. But a group of us attended an exhibition that was all about not seeing anything at all.
Láthatatlan Kiállítás, or the Invisible Exhibition, was an experience geared towards introducing sighted people to the daily life and experiences of being blind. We were led through this exhibit by our expert tour guide Yvette, who lost her sight around the age of five.
The World Health Organization estimates that Yvette is among the population of 285 million visually impaired people; 39 million are classified as blind, while the rest have low vision. Their struggles to live with a visual impairment are many, and also greatly vary depending on where in the world they live. Accommodations like street crossing indicators that use sound, braille signage, safe sidewalks, or truncated domes (the patches of bumps on some streets at the bottom of ramps that are intended to indicate when someone is leaving a sidewalk) vary widely, and are installed inconsistently, if at all.
The three-hour exhibition — conducted in complete darkness — was split into two parts. During the first part, we navigated our way through several staged rooms to get a feel for what a blind person might experience in their daily lives. The second part was a blind dinner.
After a brief period spent adjusting to the darkness, we were led into a room staged as a full studio apartment and encouraged to explore and call out objects as we recognized them through touch — a sink, a couch, an entertainment center with books and VHS tapes, a tennis racket hanging on the wall, and more. As the group became acclimated to the environment, Yvette gathered our attention and told us that everyone needs to go outside sometimes.
With that, she opened a door, and the recorded sounds of a bustling street hit our ears. Despite being in a controlled exhibition, this made all of us uncomfortable. Unlike the cozy confines of the apartment room, this next room felt cavernous. (We were later told this room was about 1,600 square feet). Inside this room we found a car, a bicycle, a newsstand brimming with literature, and a produce stand stocked with fruits and vegetables.
The third room mimicked an outdoor setting, with uneven flooring and a wooden foot bridge over the sound of running water. In this space, to provide a more realistic sense of being outdoors, we were led to a bridge and a door on the other side without being able to touch the walls.
The final room was a challenge room and the group was tasked with identifying famous statues by touch. I found myself particularly good at this task, and together we called out Nefertiti, David, Atlas, a winged cherub, a sphinx, and even Snow White with two of her dwarves. The blind dinner afterwards was served in part by Yvette, and was accompanied by a group of blind musicians who played upbeat folk music.
The entire experience brought everyone in the group entirely out of our comfort zones, and for a brief time we were exposed to a small fraction of what people with visual impairments go through every single day. As a user experience designer, this experience was invaluable to help me connect in some way with what some of our users face, and helps give me context to the things I design.