Bangladesh — Seeing In The Dark

Circa 2004

In Bangladesh people with disabilities are struggling for their rights. But an innovative exhibition has helped promote greater understanding and acceptance. Derek Thorne, who has been volunteering for a year in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, tells the story of Seeing in the Dark.

I’m a volunteer from the United Kingdom working with Social Assistance and Rehabilitation for the Physically Vulnerable (SARPV), a Bangladeshi non-governmental organization (NGO). This past December SARPV, together with Healthlink Worldwide, a British development organization, built an exhibition like nothing Bangladesh had experienced before. Seeing in the Dark re-created the large and lively city of Dhaka in complete darkness and invited members of the public to explore their familiar native environment from a very different perspective—that of people who are blind or have low vision.

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What is it like to live with a disability in Bangladesh? In this country of 140 million people, approximately nine percent are thought to have a disability, and it’s hard to generalize about such a large group. The good news is that some people with disabilities in Bangladesh enjoy independent lives. They are accepted for who they are, have good jobs, play an active part in the family and community and can move around fairly freely.

Unfortunately, these people are the minority. A far larger number of people with disabilities enjoy very few liberties, and the stigma attached to disability is so great that commonly families keep disabled members from even going outside. In many areas of Bangladesh there is a deep-rooted belief that any disability is a punishment from God; this mentality contributes to families’ astonishing secrecy surrounding their members with disabilities.

People with disabilities are certainly not invisible. It is not uncommon to see a disabled person in Bangladesh as a beggar on the street. The prevailing attitude here is often very hypocritical, because families know that a disabled beggar will be one of the highest-earning beggars around. There are numerous stories of families’ refusing to let disabled children go to school because they can do a “better job” collecting money on the street.

Even when a person with a disability is from a more privileged background, there are still barriers to inclusion and acceptance. Many employers would not consider hiring somebody with a disability, and the vast majority of employers have no provisions for disabled people in their workplaces. The government has recently set some target quotas for people with disabilities within its civil service, and hopefully this action will bear fruit. But it often seems that the only forces really making any effort to employ people with disabilities in Bangladesh are the disability organizations themselves.

Enabling better participation of people with disabilities in Bangladeshi society requires replacement of ignorance and discrimination with understanding and acceptance. In Bangladesh, as probably the world over, disability is predominantly the product of the attitudes of other people, rather than a result of a person’s inability to function.

That is where Seeing in the Dark came in. The idea for an environment that simulates the blind experience was not new; it had been employed in a number of other venues around the world. However, when Healthlink and SARPV joined Simon Allen, an independent artist from the UK, to produce the exhibition they decided to ask local people with low vision to help design and run it.

Participation by the blindness community allowed the project to address two goals: increasing awareness and understanding among people without disabilities in Bangladesh and also empowering people with visual impairments to advocate to a wide audience for their rights. Ultimately the project involved people with other disabilities as well, and the exhibition became not only about vision but about disability in general. Working together, the participants made the point that in Bangladesh it is the present environment and society that cause disability to impact lives as it does.

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The exhibition came together in a rushed and exhilarating period of about five days. One of the first activities was to meet with the participating group of people with disabilities and ask them what issues they wanted to highlight to the public. I learned a lot from these discussions–I’d never considered, for example, how difficult it must be to use money when the notes are all the same size.

The next task was to build an exhibition incorporating their ideas. The volunteers with blindness and low vision used simple recorders and microphones to collect some excellent sound recordings from the busy streets of Dhaka for use inside the installation.

Creating complete and utter darkness in the exhibition venue was challenging because after spending a little while in a dark room the human eye can adapt to a remarkable degree; even the smallest chink of light through a curtain can make a room visible in a few minutes. This exhibit’s darkness had to be absolute, and it took a lot of black cloth, paint and paper to make a truly pitch blackness.

After three long days of building the exhibition was ready, and the first visitors ventured into the virtual Dhaka. They were led into the installation by members of the volunteer group, who served as guides for the duration of the exhibition as well as actors making the dark space even more realistic.

The first object visitors encountered was a cycle rickshaw, the ubiquitous mode of transport in Bangladesh. Dhaka is the world’s rickshaw capital, with over 300,000 in a city of 12 million people. Guests had to climb onto the rickshaw and negotiate a price with the owner using money they couldn’t see. After that, they had to cross a busy road created from sand, bricks and recorded traffic noises turned up to full volume. Stereo speakers created the effect of cars racing past at fifty miles per hour.

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We thought the street scene would be the scariest part of the exhibition, but many visitors were just as unnerved by a peaceful garden for which we’d hung leaves from the roof and scattered twigs and debris across the floor.

People said the feeling of leaves brushing against their faces made them surprisingly uncomfortable. Guests also tried a short Braille exercise in the dark, and the tour ended with a visit to a market stall, complete with shopkeeper and a wide variety of difficult-to-identify foods.

Visitors received the exhibition in a variety of ways. For many the impact appeared very deep. For example, one visitor who had been working in a disability organization for some time said, “I don’t know how to express what I felt while I was inside this room. Working in this field for a number of years, I thought that I understood to some extent the problems faced by people who are blind. How wrong I was.”

Some visitors reflected on the shift of power they experienced in the dark. One said, “Before I went into the dark, I was the one who could see and my guide was blind. But inside my guide had eyes, while I was the one with no sight.”

The guides had valuable insights as well. One volunteer said afterward, “I enjoyed taking people around the dark room because it gave me an opportunity to cooperate with people without disabilities.” In Bangladesh, situations where people with and without disabilities work together to overcome challenges are fairly uncommon.

Some of the visitors enjoyed the experience, but definitely not all did. One guest ran out of the dark room in a state of panic shortly after stepping inside. Some focused on how lucky they felt to have their sight. We wondered whether this was a good attitude to foster— after all, we certainly didn’t want to encourage sighted people to simply feel good about their own bodies after their time in the dark. Rather, we wanted people to reflect on the environment and society that they lived in.

We were happy to see a number of influential people at the exhibition, such as journalists, policy-makers and architects, all capable of effecting future change. On the other hand, the exhibit drew few visitors from resourcepoor backgrounds, the population where negative perceptions of disability are most prevalent.

We had hoped to provide visitors a new understanding from this exhibition, but we, the organizers, learned at least as much. We learned a lot about developing and operating a major culturally inspired event like in Bangladesh. We also learned about working with people with an array of disabilities including low vision and blindness. The positives and negatives, the successes and mistakes—these will all go into new Seeing In the Dark projects planned for Bangladesh and elsewhere in the world over the coming years.

by Derek Thorne

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