Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Now, I see

Eating while wearing blindfold sheds light on blindness

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If you were to ask me to name the one thing I do best, I'd probably have to say lunch.

I hate to brag, but if eating lunch were an Olympic sport, I'd be the star of the Canadian team.

Some days, I force myself to eat lunch two or three times until I'm satisfied I've done it right. That's just the kind of dedicated newspaper columnist I am.

Despite this natural gift, on Wednesday, I made a huge mess of lunch. It was a horror show. I wish you could have seen it. I know I didn't.

That's because I was blindfolded. Everyone else was blindfolded, too. CNIB Manitoba treated an army of big-shot media types to a special lunch -- penne pasta with tomato sauce, Italian salad and buns -- to give us a taste of what people with vision loss face every time they eat.

We were the guinea pigs -- test subjects, if you will -- for CNIB's first annual Dining in the Dark gala, a fundraiser with a serious twist -- everyone who buys a ticket gets to savour a gourmet meal while wearing a blindfold or special glasses that simulate different visual impairments.

(Dining in the Dark is being held Sept. 13 at Assiniboia Downs. Tickets are $100 and can be obtained by calling the CNIB's Chris Glowach at 204-789-0958.)

After touring the CNIB's Portage Avenue HQ, we lined up outside the second-floor lunchroom and donned special blindfolds known as occluders. Just when I feared I'd been separated from the herd, Chris Glowach, who has about 20 per cent vision in his left eye, took me by the arm and guided me to a table.

We navigated lunch with the expertise of Tracy Garbutt, who has been legally blind since 12 and has spent the last 15 years as an independent-living-skills specialist, teaching Manitobans with vision loss how to prepare and eat food when they can't see it.

Tracy advised us to treat our plates like a clock, then told us the points on the clock where we'd find our pasta and our salads and our buns. It worked. He also suggested using our knives and forks as extensions of our hands.

While blindfolded, we also had to pour water using a device known as a Liquid Level Indicator that senses when a glass is full, then emits an obnoxious "BEEP!" Throughout lunch, as we struggled not to stab each other in the face with our forks, the witty banter was drowned out by a constant "BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!"

It is difficult, using mere words, to explain how challenging it is to eat food you are not able to see, but I will give it a try: It is really (very bad word) tough!

"When you are blind, you get a lot of empty forkfuls," explained Shep Shell, the blind marathoner and ceramic artist who was sitting beside me with his service dog Page.

"It can be a little tricky when you cook for yourself. Once I made spaghetti and took a can of what I thought was tomato sauce off the shelf and dumped it into the pot and I ended up eating spaghetti and baked beans."

The highlight for me came when I wanted a glass of water and Shep suggested I slowly walk my hand across the table. So I did, which is when I spider-walked my fingers through a salad on the plate belonging to Brittany Greenslade, producer for Global TV's The Morning Show.

"Oops!" I snorted, yanking my hand away casually.

"What?" Britanny asked, politely.

"Nothing," I sniffed, wiping my hand on my pants.

Still, I was feeling pretty smug, until we removed our blindfolds, which is when I discovered (1) a mound of pasta on the floor beneath me; and (2) a large gob of butter I thought I'd slathered on my bun had, in fact, landed on my lap.

"It was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be," Brittany said as I discreetly kicked my floor pasta under her chair. "I'm just happy I didn't end up with tomato sauce all over my white dress."

"It was a real eye-opener," CBC meteorologist John Sauder said. "You take for granted being able to see what you're trying to eat."

Also dishing up insight was Maggie Lee Grant, daughter of Manitoba Lt.-Gov. Philip Lee, who lost her eyesight at 31. "You just go with what works," the Maggie told me, laughing. "There've been many times I've missed my mouth, and a lot of spilled food and water. Slow-motion really helps."

But don't take our word for it. Trust me, if I can do it, you can do it... with your eyes closed.

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

SEEING BEYOND

Want to try eating food you can't see?

You can do it at Dining in the Dark, a gourmet dinner being held Sept. 13 at Assiniboia Downs, where diners will eat while blindfolded. Tickets are $100 and can be obtained by calling the CNIB at 204-789-0958. I'll be there helping comedian Big Daddy Tazz auction off some swell prizes, including Jets tickets and hot-air balloon rides.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2012 0

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