Dancing in the Dark: What’s Nightlife Like For Young Blind People?
"Most of my friends don't let our disability get us down. We conquer it."
Photo via the Evening Standard
In Jose Samarago's 1998 novel Blindness, the citizens of an unnamed country experience a nation-sweeping epidemic of non-sightedness. Those first inflicted are transported by the government to a repurposed asylum. Within weeks, total anarchy descends and chaos reigns. This is a world without day or night, a life without recourse to any kind of visual reference point. This, Samarago implies, is the most total and utter loss of control imaginable.
According to statistics made available by the Royal National Institute Of Blind People (RNIB), around 2,000,000 people in the United Kingdom currently experience some form of vision loss, and about 360,000 of those are registered with their local health authority as blind or partially sighted. They also believe that the total figure is set to double by 2050 due to an aging population.
Charities like the RNIB, the Royal London Society for Blind People (RLSB), Action For Blind People, and the Thomas Pocklington Trust—among others—all have initiatives in place that aim to connect young partially sighted or blind people with their sighted peers. Impaired vision, obviously, has massive ramifications, and two-thirds of registered blind and partially sighted people of working age are not in paid employment, while 90% of those who lose their sight in youth won't work for more than six months in their lives.
As daunting as that is—especially when you factor in their understanding that sight loss can be affected by issues such as diabetes and obesity, which are also on the rise—the fact of the matter is that a partial or total loss of sight isn't necessarily the nightmarish vision that Samrago's (largely) allegorical novel paints. Yet there's no ignoring the hurdles that those with partial or total sight loss have to navigate in the real world. For a while now, I've found myself wondering what nightlife is like for Britain's young partially sighted and blind people. The answer, I was pleased to discover, is along the lines of: "It's actually pretty great thank you, cheers for asking, now can you move out of the way so I can buy a drink?"
A representative from the RLSB put me in touch with a partially sighted 21 year old woman called Joy Addo. Joy was willing to talk me through what a night on the tiles was like for a young person who experiences the world through the prism of partial sight. Speaking with Joy was, in some way, a revelation. My abiding preconception—that a loss of vision was tantamount to an expulsion from the kind of average night most of us take for granted—was shattered.
For Joy, establishing a sense of self-confidence is of paramount importance to anyone who wants to spend the night in an environment that most of us don't think twice about stepping into. "A lot of the things you've got to do to have fun at night take place in the dark, and I find that a little uncomfortable," she told me. "You've got to either conquer it or it'll get you down."
"People say that I'm confident," Joy said, "but it wasn't always that way." Confidence, as we all know, isn't necessarily the easiest thing to muster up. Many of us, most of us perhaps, stumble through life in a perpetual state of unsurety about ourselves and where we belong. Joy's advice? Fake it. "You've got to," she said. "You fake it until you believe it yourself. I used to be so scared of going out. I'd worry about bumping into things, stuff like that. I began to lose my vision and thought I was the only blind person in the world."
With record rates of young people in the UK now going to university, Joy's first real experiences of clubbing echoed those of many of us. She left home to study in Leeds. "I remember going out with my flatmates and thinking 'I don't want to be the blind one who can't do anything'," she said. "But they were so nice and helpful. Everyone was drunk anyway." Drunkenness, she informed me, was a kind of leveler, saying that "drunk people might as well be blind themselves."
While that might sound daunting, Joy stresses that because clubs are dark, often busy places, they're incredibly non-visual spaces. "There really isn't much to see in them, so as long as you've got a group of friends willing to stick with you, it's fine." That element of supportiveness is crucial in ensuring that those who are partially sighted or blind don't find themselves ostracized from an experience that's an (arguably) fundamental part of early adulthood. "Most of my friends don't let our disability get us down. We conquer it. I go out with a mate and she's totally blind, and we do things together. Nothing stops us. My friends are very supportive because they're going through similar things, and yes, my sighted friends are also really supportive."
Joy, who works at Dans Le Noir, a London restaurant where diners eat in total darkness, informed me about a night that the RLSB host called Dancing in the Dark, which they bill as "London's only blindfolded gig." The event sees sighted attendees don blindfolds, giving them the chance to experience the kind of night that Joy and her peers have as a regular occurrence. These sensory and sociable events were described to me by a spokesman for the charity as occasions where, "both sighted and blind young people share experiences side-by-side. Feedback from every event has been extremely positive, blind young people like that we raise awareness in a positive way with the general public." The RLSB feel that Dancing in the Dark, and the larger scale London Without Limits project, instill a sense of self-belief amongst London's young partially sighted and blind people, allowing for a process of self-advocation. And it's not just London, similar projects are springing up all over the country. Nightclubs and festivals are becoming more accessible than ever.
For most of us the thought of losing our sight is a distressing trip into the unthinkable—and the unknown. And it's the unknown that Joy thinks people are fearful of. "People fear the unknown. If you don't have blind friends or relatives you might be fearful. Take away the fear aspect and let them know we go out and have fun."
Just like you and I, London's blind clubbers are there to have a good time. And hey, if it means they don't have to put up with the sight of you rolling three pingers deep on Friday night, then maybe they're not missing out after all.