A feast for the senses

Disability rights NGO Access Israel and the Hilton Queen of Sheba have partnered up to offer an experience that titillates the senses while illustrating the difficulty of living with a disability.

Cooking with disability (photo credit: TAL ZOHAR)
Cooking with disability
(photo credit: TAL ZOHAR)
The act of gathering a few friends and spending an evening dining out should be one of the most straightforward (and pleasurable) ways to spend one’s spare time.
But what if a physical disability prevented you from seeing what was in front of you? Or if you didn’t have proper control of your hands and feet to make your way around the restaurant? Or what if you couldn’t hear the server or the cacophony of various sounds that transpire during a meal at a busy establishment? For the 1.5 million people in Israel living with some form of disability, this is not a hypothetical – it’s a stark reality.
Which is why Access Israel, a non-profit NGO that sets out to champion the rights of people with disabilities, has paired up with the Hilton Queen of Sheba hotel in Eilat to come up with the Feast of the Senses, a multi-course dinner that aims to illustrate what it’s like to dine as a disabled person.
The meal, served in the hotel’s posh Chicago Grill Bar, takes the diner through three courses, with the guest “lacking” a certain sense during each course.
The hotel will offer the dinner every Wednesday for the next two months to groups of roughly 10 to 15 people, as part of a pilot program with Access Israel. The goal is twofold: to explain to the general public the need for more accessibility features in restaurants (and all public places, for that matter) by creating empathy with disabled persons’ daily struggles, and to generate enough interest that this dining experience can be offered at Hiltons across the country and beyond.
“We wanted to contribute and give back to the community that we inhabit.
We hope other organizations will participate and learn from this unique experience so they can pay it forward,” explains Elanor Hayon, the hotel’s public relations director.
“FOR THOSE of you who were always afraid to ask questions because it was impolite or you didn’t want to make the other person feel uncomfortable, don’t worry about all that – tonight is the time to ask anything,” Access Israel CEO Michal Rimon told our group when we arrived in the hotel’s lobby earlier this month.
We were then blindfolded before being ushered into the restaurant barely 20 meters away. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, maneuvering oneself “blindly” – even with an escort – is an unstable experience. The guest is at the complete mercy of the escort, and every sharp sound becomes heightened and more immediate. The need for clear, explicit directions becomes apparent. At one point, a fellow guest approaching a step at the restaurant’s entrance was told to “watch out.” The response from the blindfolded person was, naturally, “Watch out for what?” The introduction, then, is a heady experience. Before taking a single bite, guests quickly understand that dining at a bustling restaurant – or going through any mundane activity – is vastly different when you have a disability.
It takes a few moments to get situated in the darkness. Feeling where the utensils and glasses are and trying to get a sense of who is seated next to you is crucial. At some point, I was asked if I wanted a glass of wine. I said yes – because, of course, I heard the wine being poured into the glass.
Once I heard the server finish pouring, I reached for it, cautiously began to sip and… there was nothing. It was an empty glass. Somewhere on the table was a full glass of wine for me, and I had no idea where it was.
But that vague sense of disappointment immediately vanished when a woman named Lydia called our attention.
As a sufferer from glaucoma, she told us her story about navigating the world without being able to see.
Her fear of doing anything independently was overwhelming, she explained. Even descending her own stairs so she could buy groceries seemed too daunting. So Lydia decided simply not to leave her house. For three years.
While she was eventually able to overcome her fears and now functions almost completely on her own, she is outspoken about the demand for increased measures to make public areas more accessible to people with disabilities.
Subsequent courses involved wearing gloves to imitate the feeling of having limited hand movement, and wearing soundproof headphones to replicate being hearing-impaired.
During the dinner, Orel Galula Lapid, resource development director at Access Israel and a sufferer from spinal muscular atrophy, spoke about her life grappling with her disability.
She explained that even small steps, such as bigger text on menus, better lighting and wheelchair-accessible ramps, would improve the dining experience of not only disabled persons, but the general public as well.
“Today, the situation is much better, but we still have a long way to go,” she said of Israeli restaurants’ ability to host disabled persons. “A lot of it is about raising awareness among managers in dining establishments. It’s explaining to them that 20% of the Israeli population has some sort of disability.”
As for the food itself, the carpaccio was delicious (even though I couldn’t see it), the entrecôte steak was succulent and tender (even though my gloved hands had difficulty cutting it), and the chocolate soufflé was a fluffy dream (even though I had no idea I had ordered it, because I couldn’t read the server’s lips).
The Feast of the Senses is priced at NIS 235 per person. The writer was a guest of the hotel.