Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Not seeing is believing

Try eating blindfolded and see what the sightless must face

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If you're searching for reasons to envy me -- other than the fact I possess most of my own teeth along with TV newscaster-quality hair -- you're in luck.

Earlier this week, armed only with a fork and my rat-like cunning, I chomped my way to victory in a hotly contested spaghetti-eating contest in support of CNIB Manitoba.

I wish you could have seen me gobble my way to the championship. I didn't see a thing. This is because all the media persons and local personalities involved in the race were blindfolded to get a tiny taste of what people with vision loss face every time they sit down to eat.

While I did not receive a trophy for being the first to power down a heaping plate of pasta at The Old Spaghetti Factory at The Forks, when we took off our blindfolds, there was a look of respect in my competitors' eyes -- either that, or they were stunned by the number of tomato-sauce stains on my favourite golf shirt.

We agreed to put our gastrointestinal systems on the line to help promote CNIB Manitoba's third annual Dine in the Dark gala, a fundraiser with a twist -- everyone who buys a ticket gets to enjoy a gourmet meal while wearing a blindfold or special glasses that simulate different visual impairments.

(Dine in the Dark is being held Wednesday, Sept. 3, at the RBC Winnipeg Convention Centre. Tickets are $100 and can be obtained by calling 204-774-5421 or visiting www.dineinthedark.ca)

Before wielding our forks, we received a few pointers from Tracy Garbutt, who has been legally blind since the age of 12 and has spent the last 17 years as an independent-living-skills specialist teaching people with vision loss how to prepare and eat food they can't see.

The idea is to treat your plate like a clock, with various food items located at various points on the clock, unless you are eating spaghetti, in which case your food is basically plopped in the middle of your clock.

"Keep your hands low so if you reach for your wine or water glass, you don't knock it over," Tracy advised. "The best thing is taking your time. If you're twirling your spaghetti on your fork, take it slow to avoid the splatter factor."

We didn't want to seem rude, but a few of us told Tracy that taking things slowly might not be such a good idea when the central point of the contest was to eat faster than everyone else.

Then we slipped into our special blindfolds known as occluders and -- after I shot myself up with healthy dose of insulin -- attacked our bowls of spaghetti with reckless abandon. As I have already mentioned, I was the first to lick my bowl clean. It took exactly one minute, 18 seconds to accomplish this feat, not that I am bragging.

As I chatted with other competitors, it became obvious a lot of things bounce around your brain while you are stuffing your face with food you cannot see.

"I couldn't see the fervour, but it was palpable," chirped renowned Winnipeg sculptor Jordan Van Sewell. "I could sense there was a whole lot of eating going on. It must be difficult for those who can't lift a blindfold when they finish. You can see how the novelty would wear thin real soon."

In a rare act of generousity, CJOB's Geoff Currier, who was parked beside me, let me finish his pasta, because -- again, not proud of this -- I was still a little hungry. "It's an eye-opener, but that's a bad joke," Geoff said as I picked at his bowl. "It's an eye-closer. You're struck by how much we take for granted -- picking up a knife and putting butter on a piece of bread becomes something you have to navigate."

Later, full of pride and spaghetti, I approached another organizer, Maggie Lee Grant, who lost her eyesight at 31, and asked for a few tips on how to eat food you can't see.

Maggie, the daughter of Manitoba Lt.-Gov. Philip Lee and his wife, Anita, said, in her view, it's OK to cheat. "When I go to restaurants, I cheat," she said, laughing. "I get them to cut up my food for me."

Maggie explained that, when you lose your sight, you end up putting your trust in a lot of other people, every day. "After I lost my sight, as much as I wanted to crawl in bed, I had a little baby I had to look after," she said of her son, Philip, now 15. "This little guy needed me. I felt like I was being robbed of seeing my son grow up. I called him my 'Seeing Eye Baby.' He'd get out of his car seat, run around and get me, saying, 'Mommy, I'll be your eyes.' "

Which, I think, explains why I want everyone to buy tickets for Dine in the Dark. Best of all, you won't be able to count the stains on my golf shirt.

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 29, 2014 A2

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