Shining their light

Shai and Sarit Avidar lead the way for the sight-impaired at the Holon ‘Dialogue in the Dark’ exhibit.

‘Dialogue in the Dark’ exhibit (photo credit: GAL TAMIR)
‘Dialogue in the Dark’ exhibit
(photo credit: GAL TAMIR)
Shai Avidar, and his wife, Sarit, met and fell in love at the Israeli Children’s Museum in Holon, when they were guides at the museum’s “Dialogue in the Dark” exhibit.
They’re an attractive, confident couple: Sarit is long-haired and lissome, with a butterscotch voice; Shai is tall, with dark good looks and a distinctive beaky nose. Marriage followed love, and the couple are now parents to two daughters.
Eventually, they were given management of the exhibit, an unusual program where the public can experience being blind for one hour.
Today they supervise 50 blind and sighted workers, as a married team.
It takes a lot of love to share the daily job load and then go home to spend the rest of the day together – and add being blind to that. Sarit has been visually impaired from birth; Shai, who was born sighted, gradually lost his vision until he became totally blind at the age of 23.
To the casual observer, Shai doesn’t seem blind. “I see only light and dark now, not even shadows,” he says. “But I used to see, and it’s still natural for me to turn toward the voice of the other person.”
Shai studied education and completed his army service while he still had sight. “Naturally, I went through an emotional crisis when I went blind. I had to mourn my loss, then deal with the new reality. But I learned to see in other ways. Today, I feel that my difficulties are the same ones that sighted people have. Life isn’t easy for anyone; everyone has to contend with problems.
“But,” he concludes, “life is good too. It’s all a question of attitude.”
Sarit, who has some sight, studied law. “We decided that our challenge was to move forward,” she says. “To advance, not to accept bumping up against some glass ceiling. We believe a blind person can reach any goal if he has the will, and that’s the aim of the exhibit: to show that blind people can do almost anything.
“Museum management recognized that we have the skills to manage a complicated permanent exhibit. Given the chance, we proved ourselves.
It actually serves the concept of the exhibit that the managers are blind.”
“Blind people can study and gain skills in many fields,” Shai adds. (The couple often complete each other’s sentences and indeed, seem to know each other’s thoughts.) “There are university programs for the blind where people can study law, social work, get a teacher’s license, learn to be counselors for schools and business associations. It’s been hard for blind people to enter the workforce, but the market is slowly opening to us.
“Our aim is to get the public, and especially potential employers, to appreciate our capabilities without judging us by the white stick or guide dog.”
Have the Avidars observed changes in the way society relates to blind people? Sarit notes, “Your personality influences how people to relate to you, blind or sighted. But in general, there’s a lot of ignorance; people still have stereotypes. That hinders us when we look for work. You can be talented and an excellent worker in your field, but when you sit down at an interview, you can almost hear the employer making all kinds of calculations.
He seems to be afraid. He doesn’t trust you; he doesn’t believe that here is a quality worker.
“An employer may gladly help a blind person cross the street, but when it comes to hiring that blind person – well, that’s something else.”
Shai adds, “They reason that if you don’t see, you must be inferior to a sighted worker. Employers don’t understand that there are many ways to overcome lack of vision, and that high motivation counts.”
“It’s time for a change in the way society regards us, and this is part of our work here,” continues Sarit.
“We’re always working towards that.
We want to say, ‘People, if I have visual challenges, it’s my own problem, not yours or anyone else’s. I’m the one that has to deal with it. I’m a mother, and my children are the best cared-for in the world. My job skills are excellent.
“We’re saying: ‘We deal with blindness; you deal with other challenges.
Drop the discrimination. Just give us the chance.’” It’s clear there needs to be a place where the blind and the sighted can meet and talk, and Dialogue in the Dark is that place. Sarit explains, “Here, the blind are the leaders, while the sighted are suddenly dependent.
After you’ve been blind for that hour, you understand that the blind person is a normal human being, like you. He isn’t a threat, there’s nothing to fear from him.”
Shai says, “To change society’s attitude, it’s important that children also experience Dialogue in the Dark. Lots of school groups come through here.”
Sarit contributes an unexpected insight about the visitors: “I’ve seen that religious people consider blindness the worst thing that can happen to a person. It’s said that the blind are like the dead, so they look at me and think, ‘Her life is the hardest that God could ever give someone.’” Shai says, “But we think that ignorance is worse. The blind are only thought of as dead when society puts them aside and considers them so.”
The exhibit was originally meant to run for six months, then be taken down. “No one expected it to be so successful,” remembers Sarit, “but it was so popular that the museum decided to keep it open another six months. It stayed up another seven years. Finally we got the exhibit a permanent location, not a hangar whose roof leaked.”
Shai says, “We used to get towels and mop the floors when it rained; it was worth the hard work, though.
Now it’s a year and a half since we moved Dialogue in the Dark to this building.”
The program of events has included a public sing-along, stand-up comedy, a family dialogue and wine tasting in the dark. The museum is currently celebrating the exhibit’s 10th anniversary and the over 800,000 visitors that have gone through.
In this reporter’s experience, the first few minutes of the blind experience are a little stressful. You don’t know how to keep walking, even holding the guide’s hand; you grope around. Have there been cases of people who decided they couldn’t take it? Sarit replies, “Anyone who says they’re really nervous gets a guide who stays with them throughout. We encourage those people to stay and experience it until the end, so they feel what it is to overcome the challenge.
And at the end, they’re the ones who thank us the most.
“We don’t expect them to say, ‘Wow, that was fun! I couldn’t see a thing!’ We just hope they feel some of the pride in overcoming fear, in conquering the dark, that the blind feel.
Of course, we guide anyone out who really needs to leave.
“Life is beautiful. It all depends on the way you approach things. The important thing is never to give up. If anyone wants a boost of optimism or encouragement, they should come to see us – or to not see.”