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Students eat meal blindfolded, reflect on experience

Photo by Zaria Clark

Disability Empowerment Week made its Rollins debut last week, featuring a series of activities recognizing and celebrating disabled people. Dining in the Dark consisted of a guided, blindfolded dinner in which attendants experienced a sliver of what visually impaired people experience on a daily basis. 

Topanga Sena  (‘22), an attendee of Dining in the Dark, said that she had “a great experience and [she’s] happy that it was a part of Rollins’ first Disability Empowerment Week.”

The dinner included tips on how to eat a three course meal, which included salad, chicken parmigiana, and a chocolate cake, while blindfolded. Attendees were instructed to eat low and slow—a technique practiced by the visually impaired community to feel the food they are about to eat and sense the area around it. 

Sena said she thought Dining in the Dark was “meaningful because it gives insight into people with low vision/blindness [and their] experiences.” She added, “Though it doesn’t replicate their experiences by any means, and participants were able to take our blindfolds off at the end of the event, Lighthouse Central Florida simulated it to give us an understanding.”

Kyle Johnson (‘07), Rollins alum and CEO of Lighthouse Central Florida, led the event. Lighthouse Central Florida is a private nonprofit dedicated to helping blind people and visually impaired people mitigate the costs of living, rehabilitation, and assimilation processes.

Johnson guided the end-of-event reflection, in which participants talked about their experiences during the dinner, the mission and resources of Lighthouse Central Florida, and inspiring stories of people who have been part of the organization.

Elizabeth Smith (‘22), founder of Disability Empowerment Week, said that Melissa Nelson, staff director for the Social Impact Hub, suggested the partnership with Lighthouse Central Florida. 

“[Nelson] told us [about a] Dining in the Dark that took place on campus a few years ago [and] really made an impact. They were hoping to repeat this event on an annual basis, but due to COVID-19, they did not have the opportunity,” Smith said. After her conversation with Nelson, Smith re-introduced Dining in the Dark on campus as a key part of Disability Empowerment Week.

During the event, Sena said that she and her friends “enjoyed [their] food more and paid attention to the quality of it, rather than to [their] surroundings” and how “[they] struggled to know what was on the plate and ate everything that our forks could catch.”

After 24 students participated in Dining in the Dark, Smith said she hopes for an annual continuation of the project.

“Even though I am a senior, I will be completing a Master of Public Health at Rollins College and will be involved in the community to help contribute to future [Disability Empowerment Weeks],” Smith said. 

Smith added that one of her goals is to have ASL interpreters present at future Disability Empowerment Weeks and to continue to build partnerships within and outside the Rollins community.

“Students can be allies by learning more about the disability community,” Smith said. “One way to educate students is to watch the documentary Crip Camp on YouTube or Netflix that gives a history of the disability rights movement.”

Smith also recommended on-campus resources, saying that “students can take classes around disability and identity, such as the Dr. Stacy Coffman-Rosen RFLA course.” 

“Disability Empowerment Week is meant to build a sense of community around disability pride,” Smith said. “To me, disability pride is about recognizing that disability is a part of who I am as a disabled person. It contributes to how I see and live in the world. Additionally, I hope that [Disability Empowerment Week] will be the gateway to conversations around disability rights and contribute to greater social inclusion.”

“It is important to remember people with disabilities when discussing diversity, equity, and inclusion, as the disability community is considered the largest minority,” Smith said. “This [Dining in the Dark] experience was a great addition to the events of [Disability Empowerment Week] and spotlights the low vision and blind community.”

For more information about Lighthouse Central Florida, visit its website.

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