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In 1999, the first “dining in the dark” restaurant opened in Zurich, Switzerland. Blindekuh, or the Blind Cow (the German name for the game of blind man’s bluff), was wildly popular, and inspired dozens of similar ventures that opened in cities across Europe and around the world. At each of these restaurants (as well as at ubiquitous one-off dining in the dark fundraising events), diners follow a similar procedure: They’re asked to stash their phones and other light-emitting items into lockers, and then walk, conga line-style, into a pitch-black room, guided by a staff of blind and low-vision servers. The blind waitstaff helps the diners find their seats, and then serves them a series of mystery dishes, which the guests taste and guess at in total darkness. People’s experiences of these restaurants range from delight to terror. Journalists describe heightened senses, even a feeling of liberation: “You are only a voice in the darkness like any other,” a reporter for the BBC wrote, “finally free of your body.”
Blindekuh was founded by a blind pastor to generate empathy for blind people, and dining in the dark restaurants have provided reliable jobs for the chronically underemployed blind workforce. The writer Adam Linn told me that working as a server a few nights a week at Dans le Noir, a short-lived entry in the dining in the dark genre in New York, helped him through some difficult years as a single father, and that a fellow blind server used her wages to save for a down payment on a condo in the Bronx. But the experience — like so many disability simulations — can also exacerbate the stigma of blindness, and a diner’s takeaway is often a version of, “Thank God I don’t have to eat like that ever again.” Eater NY made a running gag of its loathing of Dans le Noir. Two editors agreed it was “the worst dining experience” of their lives: “The food is more of a distraction from your fear,” one said, “not something to nourish you.” (At the end of the restaurant’s 14-month lifespan in 2013, the headline read, “NY’s #1 Nightmare Factory Now Officially Closed.”)
To be fair, Dans le Noir NYC really did sound hellish: overpriced, hot, crowded, and filled with disoriented out-of-towners drinking their way through their big-city trawls. (Linn confirmed that soon after opening, its management faltered, and it was more or less “finished before it started.”) But behind some of the critical loathing of Dans le Noir lurked the fear and alienation of blindness: anxiety over the loss of independence (diners had to be led to the bathroom), claustrophobia (“I admit to having felt slightly sick as we were led through the thick black curtains and encouraged to grope for our chairs,” another journalist wrote), and an approving but infantilizing sense of play (“There is a childlike fun to be had in jabbing your fingers all over the plate, feeling the different temperatures and textures,” per that same journalist). The year before Dans le Noir NYC shut its doors, the National Federation of the Blind issued a formal resolution at its national convention in Dallas: “Be it resolved,” the NFB declared, “that this organization condemn and deplore the use of Dining in the Dark in a manner that diminishes the innate normality and equal status of the blind in society.”
The reality of blind dining — for actual blind people, who live the experience every day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner — bears little resemblance to the dining in the dark experience. Forks and knives are, with minimal practice, eminently manageable without vision, and pointed in the right direction, few blind people need to be guided to the bathroom. Sighted diners accustomed to appraising their plates visually report feeling stymied by the mystery of the texture and taste of their meals in the dark, but blind people have no difficulty savoring their food, particularly when they know what it is they’ve ordered.
When Linn became blind when he was 11 years old, he soon realized he took more pleasure from restaurants than he did from his other passions. He lost his vision in the early 1980s, between the release of the second and third Star Wars films, and he was struck by how disappointing the cinematic experience was as a blind person: “Ewoks just aren’t that cool when you’re blind,” he says. But a good restaurant was still a revelation. “Eating a fantastic manchego, or pancetta,” he says, “you put it in your mouth and it explodes.” On a recent trip to Crete, he and his wife went on a dining tour. “I’ve never liked honey that much, but this was real honey,” he says, his voice caramelizing with the memory. “It was almost a liquid.”
The biggest problem for a blind diner has very little to do with any mechanical or logistical difficulty of blindness, and instead centers on the condescending, exclusionary, or simply ignorant attitudes and behaviors of sighted people. The first challenge is just getting through the front door: Despite the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) explicitly protects disabled people’s right to bring service animals into restaurants, blind people are frequently denied entry by workers who are unaware of the law and categorically reject the presence of any animal. But once they’re actually admitted into a restaurant, an extensive menu of microaggressions still awaits the blind diner. Servers frequently speak to blind people in a loud voice, on the inexplicable but commonplace assumption that somehow a lack of vision also implies a hearing difficulty.
Hoby Wedler, a blind chemist and educator, recalled a server grabbing his cane and dragging him through the restaurant to guide him. “When we arrived at the table,” Wedler wrote in an illuminating essay about fine dining as a blind person, the server “set the tip of my cane on the table and asked me if I needed to explore the table top.” With impressive patience, Wedler explained to the server that the cane is better off on the ground. “Locating a wine glass with my cane would be a challenge, to say the least,” he observed drily.
One of the most commonplace — and infuriating — mistakes a restaurant will make when confronted with the unfamiliar experience of serving a blind diner happens when it’s time to order. Making their way around the table, rather than asking the blind person what they want, the server will turn to one of their sighted companions and inquire, “And what will she be having?”
“That’s an everyday occurrence,” Stephanie Jones, a blindness rehabilitation counselor and entrepreneur told me. “Happens all the time.” Jones eats out frequently for work, often with her sighted business partner, Helen Fernety. When servers ask Fernety what Jones would like, she’s become accustomed to responding, “I don’t know — why don’t you ask her?” When she’s out with her kids, Jones says, “They look at me, and go, ‘Mom?’”
But while the question is harmful — demeaning, ableist, condescending, paternalistic — it’s not exactly surprising. Restaurant servers are, like so much of the rest of the world’s sighted population, frequently and fundamentally confused about a blind person’s basic competence. We tend to look at blind people and wonder, How on earth do they manage?
This persistent question (“And what would they like?”) may actually express the server’s tacit understanding of their restaurant’s lack of accommodations. When the menu is only available in print, “And what will she be having?” evinces a sad reality: The blind person is denied the basic freedom and dignity of making an independent choice. Even dining in the dark restaurants, which are explicitly designed to serve people who (temporarily) cannot see, fail to address this problem — diners either order in a lighted lounge, before they enter the dining room, or select from a vague, airline-style list of prix fixe choices (vegetarian, fish, meat) so they can giggle at the novelty of trying to figure out what they’re eating.
In the face of larger problems affecting the blind (chronic poverty and unemployment, barriers to education, exorbitantly priced assistive technology), the ability to independently choose between garlic, truffle, or regular fries may seem hopelessly trivial. But these issues are fundamentally related. When a blind person is treated like a child in a restaurant, with their companions reading the menu to them, it follows that they’ll be treated like a child elsewhere in society, too. “Not being able to do small things affects your confidence,” Jones says. “If I can’t even do this small thing, how am I going to do something bigger, like get a job?”
When Jones first lost her sight, her in-laws came to help her and her husband with their kids. “Even going out was hard in this new reality of blindness,” she says. But her in-laws had a ritual of eating out every weekend, and she wanted things to “seem normal” for her kids, so she forced herself to go out. To deal with the awkwardness of no longer being able to read the menu, she ordered the same dishes every time. “I had a list of ‘safe-bet foods’ — fettuccine Alfredo, Caesar salad, chicken tenders.” She’d listen to what her family ordered, and sometimes went along with them. “For us in Memphis, going to chain restaurants like Applebee’s or an O’Charley’s helped, since they advertised dishes on television. I heard about the new Sizzling Chicken Platter, and thought, I’m gonna get that next time, because I heard it on TV.”
Chain restaurants tend to appeal to people with disabilities because, as larger targets for lawsuits, and with stricter corporate governance, they’re more likely to have coherent, well-enforced access protocols. Linn, who lives in Manhattan and loves trying new restaurants, is so sick of being denied service because of his guide dog that he and his friend, who’s also a guide-dog user, just meet at Outback Steakhouse when they want to go out together. “Of course there are a million other places we could go,” he says. “But I don’t care, I’ll eat a burger.” It’s not worth the stress of hearing “No animals!” over and over, as soon as they walk through the door.
Lawsuits and strict corporate governance also explain why national chain restaurants are often the only places blind diners are likely to find braille or large-print menus. Braille menus can erase the feelings of difference and exclusion that make the dining experience so alienating for blind people. While the ADA doesn’t require restaurants to produce braille menus — if a server is willing to read the entire menu to a blind customer, the law is satisfied — restaurants began offering braille menus in greater numbers after the ADA legislation passed in 1990. Lou Fioritto was with his wife at a Mexican restaurant in Cleveland in 1993 where he was surprised to be offered a braille menu. Even though the menu was a mess — “a sea of braille,” Fioritto says — it transformed his dining experience, allowing him to explore the restaurant’s offerings without relying on his wife to read to him like a child. That night, at the table, Fioritto and his wife conceived of Braille Works, which they founded the next year. Today, it’s one of the largest producers of braille menus in the U.S.
Braille is costly to produce, so Fioritto primarily pitched chain restaurants, which provided a more reliable source of orders at a volume that made the printing job more economically feasible, though he says that there is no minimum order, and Braille Works also serves mom-and-pop restaurants. For the first 20 years of his business, he tells me, “I did a lot more convincing restaurants that they needed braille menus than just selling them.” These days, the business is well-known enough that restaurants reach out directly. Fioritto took great care in the aesthetics of his menus, adding more space between items for easier tactile navigation, and giving the menus’ covers a pleasing ridged texture, “kind of like the color that sighted people see on their menus.”
Braille menus aren’t a seamless solution to the menu accessibility problem. Fewer than 10 percent of blind people in the U.S. read braille at all. A single page of print runs to a few pages in braille, so menus can quickly grow into book-length publications. “You need a counselor to get through the Cheesecake Factory’s braille menu,” Fioritto says, laughing. “It’s more than 100 pages long!” And because braille is so expensive to produce, restaurants typically only order menus once a year, about one or two copies per restaurant; Outback Steakhouse orders a total of about 2,000 menus for its franchises across the country. As a result, braille menus quickly go out of date. It took Fioritto 10 years to close the Red Lobster account, primarily because the chain’s prices are so variable depending on the fluctuations of the seafood market. (His solution was to publish a price range, rather than a specific amount, and the server could confirm the actual price at the table.)
Tony Stephens, the director of communications for the American Foundation for the Blind, appreciates the braille menus he knows he can always find at Applebee’s or TGI Fridays, but as a vegan and a self-described “foodie,” he says, “I need more sustenance than that.” So like many blind people, he relies on his smartphone to access menus. The pandemic led to an explosion of touchless QR code menus, and restaurants that now use services like DoorDash and Uber Eats. One side effect of this expansion is that blind people can now access digital menus far more easily, often while seated in the restaurant itself (as opposed to looking it up in advance, on a computer at home), through their phone’s screen readers, which read the text on a website aloud. “When I’m forced to ask friends about the menu,” Stephens says, “you often don’t get the full breadth of what’s available.” And asking friends how much menu items cost is embarrassing: “I don’t want to seem like a cheapskate.” When he’s able to navigate the menu on his phone, at the table, he can decide independently, and participate in the casual but vital convivial spontaneity of planning an order — “Do you want to split this appetizer?”
But websites are notoriously hit-or-miss when it comes to accessibility. A website designed without accessibility in mind becomes incomprehensible to a blind person using a screen reader. “You touch the screen where there should be a menu,” Stephens says, “and it just says, ‘Image... image... image... image’ — your stomach sinks.” Linn was recently trying to access a digital menu when he was out with his kids. “I could see there were soups,” he says, “but I couldn’t see what they were or what they cost.” His daughters tried to help him: “Dad, you need to click on the picture!”
Jones, the blindness counselor in Memphis, and her business partner Fernety, started a venture to address this problem. They designed an app, Menus4ALL, that pulls from a database of hundreds of thousands of menus across the U.S. and Canada. The app reformats this menu data into a screen reader-friendly interface. Using the app, the blind diner can quickly scan a menu just like a sighted reader would — bouncing across categories, zeroing in on items they’re interested in, skimming along the list of prices, and so on.
Confronted with any barrier to access — a service-dog denial, a poorly designed website, an awkward moment of ableism at the table — the blind or disabled person is forced to confront their difference. This destroys the entire purpose of dining out, which is about the pleasures of connection, interaction, sharing in the experience. “I just want to order food,” Jones says, “but now I’ve got to teach, advocate.”
But when everything works, however that might happen — an up-to-date braille or large-print menu, available without fuss; an accessible website; a well-trained waitstaff — the public perception and experience of blindness shifts from estrangement to normalcy and belonging. “I come into the restaurant with my white cane, sit down, and order like everyone else, showing I can do things, and be part of the community,” Jones says. “And without having to explain a thing, I may have changed someone’s perception.”
Andrew Leland’s first book, The Country of the Blind: A Memoir at the End of Sight, is out now.
Ananya Rao-Middleton is an illustrator and disability activist who uses her work to speak truth to the voices of marginalized communities.
Cheryl Green is an access artist and filmmaker with acquired disabilities, whose work focuses on disability identity and culture and on making media accessible.