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Exhibit will lead visitors into the world of blindness

By Matt Campbell and Debra Skodack/McClatchy Newspapers

Monday, Aug 25, 2008 - 08:07:31 am CDT

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City’s next big exhibit is nothing to look at.

Union Station, the city’s entertainment and culture complex, is offering an opportunity for sighted people to experience what it is like to be blind:

*To go to a park when you can’t see the grass.

*To cross a street when you can’t see the cars.

*To pay for something when you can’t see your money — or what you're buying.

It’s called “Dialog in the Dark,” and it runs Oct. 17 through Feb. 8.

For more than an hour, visitors will be immersed in darkness and led through a series of everyday activities in which they will depend on guides who really are blind or visually impaired.

“You gain respect for that person and begin a dialogue with them that expands your perceptions of the world of the disabled,” said Cheryl Mure, education director for Premier Exhibitions, which is bringing the exhibit to Union Station.

Though it has been experienced by millions of people abroad, it is new to the United States. A version opens in Atlanta this week; Kansas City will be only the second U.S. city to offer it.

Union Station officials acknowledge it will be a challenge to promote an exhibit that has no images to post on a billboard or in an ad. In fact, there will be no photographs allowed of the layout of the exhibit. The point is that visitors should have little or no mental picture in advance of what they will experience.

As a result, Union Station will rely heavily on word of mouth to promote the exhibit.

“One of the challenges is helping people to understand what the exhibition is all about because it’s so innovative,” Mure said. “Most people are used to going to museums and looking at objects and listening to audio tours and viewing things, and this is complete darkness.”

Visitors will have to place their cell phones, BlackBerrys and similar devices in a locker before entering. Even wristwatches with glowing displays will be forbidden. Definitely no sneakers with blinkers.

What else to expect: Tickets will be sold for specific dates and times. Groups will be limited to 10 people, but there will be four identical sets of galleries, so 40 people can enter every 12 minutes.

Upon entering, you will get a cane and meet your guide, who will be your anchor.

On your journey, you will use all your senses other than sight. You will walk on grass or gravel. You will hear animal sounds, smell flowers, taste a drink.

“The plants will be live; the water will be real,” said Linda Segebrecht, Union Station education director.

But the visitor will not experience anything unpleasant or dangerous.

The exhibit is designed to give people empathy for the sightless and a better understanding of how they navigate their lives. It can be a powerful connector for people with a sightless parent, child or sibling.

“I think the first thing people will walk away with from this exhibit is that the everyday acts that you and I do, blind people also do every day and do it so very effectively,” said Reinhard Mabry, president and chief executive officer for Alphapointe Association for the Blind, a Kansas City nonprofit that offers visual rehabilitation services.

“Of all of the disabilities that exist, blindness is the one people are most fearful of,” Mabry said.

Mabry hopes the exhibit will bring awareness of the abilities of the those living with blindness, who struggle with high rates of poverty and unemployment.

The exhibit will employ 40-60 local people who are visually impaired to work as guides. Premier Exhibitions works with Manpower, an employment service that will help the guides find sustainable local jobs after the exhibit is over.

Station officials hope “Dialog in the Dark” will be profitable for the station as well as enriching for visitors.

“This may not be a blockbuster exhibit like the Dead Sea Scrolls,” said station CEO Andi Udris. “But in terms of offering an exhibit completely new and different that most people in the United States have never experienced, we are on the cutting edge, as we were with the scrolls.”

“Union Station will offer an educational guide for grades 4 and up that teachers can use in their classrooms in conjunction with the exhibit. Rachel Toledo-Miller, Union Station marketing manager, said the exhibit would be also well-suited to corporate team-building exercises.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

“Dialog in the Dark” runs Oct. 17 through Feb. 8. Tickets are available Oct. 1 at the station, at 816-460-2020 or at www.unionstation.org. Adults $22; children 4-12, $18; group rates available.

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