I’m told I have a unique perspective on the restaurant world. I’m an entrepreneur with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of California, Davis, and I co-founded a sensory-design company called Senspoint that helps companies enhance the design of products and experiences from the perspective of all five senses.
When we hear the word “sensory” in the context of food and drink, our mind typically goes straight to the plate or the glass. While I have a well-trained palate, our company also helps clients focus on all sensory aspects of their space outside the plate or glass—from the sound of a space to smell, temperature, and touch. It’s amazing how much the subconscious, sensory elements of our surroundings play into the overall experience we have while dining. I know this because I was born blind, without any light perception (the ability to perceive the presence or absence of light).
But beyond my identity as a sensory designer or a blind person, I love experiencing food, both dining out and cooking at home. It’s a large part of what got me into sensory design. Frankly, before I started working on this piece, I didn’t think much about dining as a blind person, what works and what doesn’t. My dining experience is determined by me and the way I choose to interact with the staff. But my experience does differ depending on whether I am alone or with friends or clients—I’ll explain how a bit later.
I carry a white cane, which I’ve found can alarm people who are going to be working with you, waiting on you, etc. I’ve learned the best way to mitigate any fear they may have is to act normally and treat people with the same respect with which I would like to be treated. There are a few easy ways that staff, other diners, and I can work together to make the experience seamless.
Keep the conversation flowing. Upon entering a restaurant, I take great care to make interacting with me feel natural for the staff member guiding me. If they are already walking ahead of me, I don’t stop them to ask if I can have an arm. Rather, when they say things like, “Right this way,” or “Follow me,” I keep the conversation going so I always know where they are. It is difficult to follow behind someone if they stop making noise. I am a gregarious, chatty person anyway, which makes it easier to keep them talking.
I never say things like “You need to keep talking so I can follow you,” because people get nervous and don’t know what to say. In one instance, a host started whistling. Another sang a song out of tune. One started beeping like a large truck reversing. The beeper, singer, and whistler meant no harm and were very nice people; they just were nervous and didn’t know how to treat me. I quickly put a stop to the strange noises by making conversation.
For a blind person, getting to the restroom is not as difficult as people think. Often, staff can simply describe the route and I walk there myself. We may tap some furniture on our way, but we will find the bathroom. If the restaurant I am in is particularly noisy, I will often take someone’s arm to find the restroom. Almost always, I do not have them wait for me. I remember the general direction of the restroom and can find my way back independently.
Please don’t grab my cane. Apparently my cane can also be confusing. In a fine-dining restaurant, I had a gentlemen tow me through the dining room to my table by picking up the end of my cane. When we arrived at the table, he set the tip of my cane on the table and asked me if I needed to explore the table top. I explained to him that I typically walk with my cane on the ground so I can feel the ground. The cane isn’t a tow bar and locating a wine glass with my cane would be a challenge, to say the least.
Talk to me about the menu. Dining alone is often easier than dining with a group because the server has no choice but to interact with me. If the restaurant has a braille menu, they are usually very excited because they don’t get to hand it out very often. If a text version of the menu is online and accessible, I prefer using my phone to read the web version aloud to me. If the online menu is not available, it’s usually easiest to simply ask my server about his/her favorite items. Nine times out of ten, the wait staff is excited to tell me about their menu because they are proud of it.
No, I don’t need help cutting my food. Frustratingly, staff sometimes ask if I need help cutting my food. Since I learned how to cut my food when I was a small child, I politely decline this offer. I thank them very much for their concern and explain that I would have asked for extra assistance if I had needed it.
Really, just talk to me. When I’m dining with a group, often a server will speak at a normal volume to everyone else and then increase their volume when it’s my turn. (I’m blind, not deaf.) When this happens, I nicely explain that I can hear just fine.
The most bothersome experience is when a server asks someone else in my group what I’d like. “Does he need a fork?” or “What will he be having today?” When this happens, I quickly but politely inform him/her that I can speak. I do not need an interpreter to place my order. If I am eating pasta, do they really think I’m going to shovel it with a spoon—or worse yet, my hand? I’m never rude to the staff even when I am frustrated because rudeness accomplishes nothing. I simply explain that I can talk and use a fork.
Lastly, don’t assume I’m drunk. I was with some friends on a recent New Year’s Eve, and we stopped into a bar for a beer. On the way in, I bumped into a table with my hip. The bartender proceeded to inform me that I was cut off and was clearly a liability concern. I’m guessing he thought I was drunk. Really? I had simply missed the table with my cane. After spending 30 minutes convincing him that I was not a liability, we promptly left to find a more enjoyable spot.
Ultimately, dining out as a blind person is the same as dining out as a sighted person. I take any opportunity I can to educate people rather than ridicule them. Whether you are blind or sighted, laugh with people, and have the heart of a teacher as much as you can.