Forrest Gump had it wrong. Life is not a box of chocolate, it’s a kaleidoscope. In the flip of a wrist realities are shredded and the world takes on a totally new shape.
Fitting words to depict the experience of the blind; spoken by executive head Freddie Botha last Wednesday evening when the Institute of the Blind celebrated its 135-year history.
To mark the occasion the institute, for the first time ever, changed its name. It will now be known as Kaleidoscope, changing its focus to being a commercially viable entity, with a rousing pay-off line: “Let the blind lead”.
This, according to Hein Wagner, Kaleidoscope’s brand ambassador, places the focus on visually impaired persons as complete citizens in the community capable of taking the lead in society.
The windowless dining hall at Langverwacht Wine Estate in Kuils River was pitch black, entered into through a heavily draped black tunnel to eliminate every point of light and shade. This attempted to mimic complete blindness and organisers made very sure they missed nothing when cellphones, cameras and anything that could possibly provide light were confiscated at the door in a somewhat fascist manner.
Wagner, who has been blind since birth, explained total blindness as “not only the absence of light, but also a complete loss of depth perception, the ability to determine distances between objects and see the world in three dimensions, with no option of reprieve”.
If this was not immediately understood by diners when they entered the hall, it soon became very clear. A menacing nothingness – pitch black, heavy and flat – wrapped up your entire consciousness to threaten your very existence.
For some, strangely this was a cue to give way to their inner boisterousness, whereas for most, I imagine, the darkness was oppressive.
I for one couldn’t keep my eyelids open after only a few minutes and cowered down to protect myself from the overpowering darkness. It is hard to say exactly when one’s other senses kick in, but mercifully they do, and when this happens you can somewhat relate to Wagner when he says “welcome to the magical world of the blind”.
Wagner, despite his blindness, has many accomplishments to his name and lived by the motto that “Impossible is Nothing”.
He ran the Antarctica, Two Oceans and New York marathons, completed several Cape Town Cycle Tours, tackled the white waters of the Zambezi River, not to mention climbing the ten highest mountains in the Western Cape. He was the perfect host in a most bizarre setting – sighted people having fun at being “blind”.
Diners enthusiastically piped out at how magnificent it was to actually smell the ingredients in the salads they were eating, as if feta cheese suddenly tasted better – sardonic, but true.
A crew of blind and partially blind waitrons were our only salvation and in the proverbial land of the blind, Erasmus’s one-eyed man was truly king.
These waitrons expertly guided every lost soul to their exact seats at the tables, to the restrooms when needed, passed the wine, found the cutlery and served a plated three course meal. Astonishing.
“Blind people in the modern world are often unseen; invisible to a sighted society, and we want to change that because the blind have such unlimited potential and so much to offer to the world,” said Botha. “Human awareness can be likened to a kaleidoscope and we know that with a simple twist of perception so much can be revealed. This is what has led us to the new name for the refreshed, revived Institute for the Blind.”
The institute presently receives only 15% of government aid and is therefore solely responsible for the generation of 85% of the total operational expenses.
“It is therefore important that we should strive to become more self-sustainable to ensure a future for our persons who are visually impaired,” Wagner explains.
He says the institute is setting up sustainable partnerships with local and international business entities to strengthen the brand and grow its product offering. “By raising the bar in becoming a world leader in all things blind related, our aim is to inspire the blind and sighted alike to be successful – no matter the challenge.”
97% of visually impaired unemployed Wagner says the name change reflects an international character and opens doors to new opportunities, projects and funding.
“A few of our goals include the development of a one-stop resource centre for blind and deaf-blind persons at our information centre, the establishment of a modern technology training centre at our adult career development department, the marketing of the institute as one of the best tourist attractions in South Africa, and to establish more viable partnerships with the corporate sector and businesses as well as to enhance existing partnerships.”
He says they are also in the process of transforming the production units to become more sustainable. Already innovative products have been launched including a new coffee brand, wine etiquettes, cane, weaving, wood, mattress, metal, arts, crafts production and sales.Employment is one of the biggest challenges the blind face in South Africa – this is evident in light of the fact that 97% of the visually impaired are unemployed. “It is also our goal to create more opportunities for job placement of visually impaired persons in the open labour market,” he adds.
Public ignorance and society’s general lack of knowledge of the blind, expensive assistive devices and training, inaccessibility, school training and provision of Braille text books are other major challenges the institution faces.