disABILITY Advocacy Student Coalition

Photo Credit: Esther Shin | Daily Texan Staff

Hands fumble against the dark walls of the Student Activity Center ballroom as each student searches for their place at the table and the secret meal that awaits. Welcome to Dinner in the Dark. 

Dinner in the Dark, a biannual event hosted by the Disability Advocacy Student Coalition, or DASC, provides students with a better understanding of what it’s like to live with a visual impairment. DASC president Kathryn Strickland believes Dinner in the Dark gives students a platform to ask questions, connect and learn from differently-abled students.

“There are people who are afraid of saying the wrong thing or offending somebody,” Strickland said. “We like to host these kind of events to provide a safe place for people to learn and not be afraid of offending anybody.”

Strickland said there’s no better place to do this than in the dark. On Thursday, students and members of the UT community will be guided into a pitch-black SAC ballroom and served a meal, the contents of which have been kept secret. Madison Lee, a speech and language pathology junior and DASC member, said the meal can be quite comical.

“It’s honestly so funny because you’re just fumbling around in the dark, and it’s such a struggle,” Lee said. “You’re not used to eating like that; you’re not used to not being able to see your hand and bring it up to your face without spilling. Napkins are necessary.”

After the meal, attendees will hear from a panel of blind and visually impaired UT students as they discuss how they go about their daily lives without the use of sight. 

“The panel is always really great and really enlightening,” Lee said. “I think the coolest part is you learn so much about a population you don’t interact with as much as (you) should.”

According to Strickland, this year’s Dinner in the Dark will be twice the size of previous years. Strickland said she believes word of mouth is responsible and that most people are simply intrigued by the concept.

“To be quite honest with you, we were shocked to find out these numbers,” Strickland said. “It’s a little bit intimidating, but definitely something we are looking forward to.”

Though Strickland is pleased by the spike in attendance, she said she worries that the novelty of the event may cause some to lose sight of its bigger purpose.

“It’s more of a way to draw the community in to learn from the panelists,” Strickland said. “Dinner in the Dark is really a kind of way to get community members in to learn firsthand about visual impairment.”

Katie Holt, a history sophomore who plans to attend the event, said she was initially intrigued by the idea of simply having dinner in the dark, but looks forward to learning about the lives of those with a visual impairment.

“It sounded really cool and like something I’ve never done before,” Holt said. “It sounded like a learning experience.” 

Strickland said events like Dinner in the Dark are necessary because they can help start a much needed conversations about disabilities and advocacy. 

“Dinner in the Dark opens (a) door by getting people in to hear firsthand from very real people,” Strickland said. “They’re not ‘other,’ they’re just like you. They just do things a little bit differently.”

Dinner became an obstacle course for UT students who attended Dinner in the Dark, an event for blindness awareness and a discussion between individuals with and without sight.

The dinner, hosted Tuesday by the disABILITY Advocacy Student Coalition in partnership with the UT Services for Students with Disabilities, allowed sighted students to experience dinner through the eyes of those living with blindness. Students formed a train as they entered the dark room, relying mainly on their senses of hearing and touch to seat themselves and find their meals.

In addition to enabling sighted students to empathize with their peers living without full vision, the dinner was a platform for discussion about questions or misunderstandings that sighted students had about interacting with people with disabilities.

Monica Villarreal, the coalition’s president, said she wanted the event to facilitate open conversation and awareness.

“The whole goal is to say that disability is not what defines a person,” Villarreal said. “Disability is just a characteristic. It’s just like having blonde hair or being tall, blue-eyed. I think a lot of people see a person with a disability … as it defines that person, and so we’re trying to fight that.”

Villarreal founded the coalition in 2011 when she could not find any organizations addressing student disabilities. Though the coalition originally focused on blindness, its mission evolved after she was approached with the possibility of collaboration with disabilities services.

Emily Shryock, disabilities services coordinator, said that the Dinner in the Dark provided an opportunity for sighted students to experience interacting with people without the judgments often made based on appearances.

“The organization put [Dinner in the Dark] together and we are very happy to support it, to provide others with an idea of what it is like to live with disabilities,” Shryock said. “We want to break down stereotypes and relate on individual levels instead of thinking of somebody on that disability level.”

Mathematics graduate student Urmi Nayak used to do blind readings for students with visual impairments and said that she attended the event because it offered an interesting and different experience.

“Being in the dark is something everyone is scared of,” Nayak said. “So am I. I just wanted to know what it felt like and what having no sight could be [like].”