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Thursday, July 14,2011

Enlightenment in darkness

Blind Café builds bridges between blind and sighted worlds

By Sara Kassabian
photo by Sue France

In many ways, Rosh Rocheleau’s life evokes a Kerouac sense of wander. While touring as a musician in Iceland, Rocheleau literally stumbled into a darkened café and found himself enlightened.

“The waiters were blind, and they sent me in with a cane just by myself,” Rocheleau says. “I had to find my way in the pitch dark. I couldn’t see anything. It was a cool experience, and I just thought it would be great to bring back to Boulder. But I didn’t know anyone who was blind, so it took me maybe three or four years to find somebody who was.”

Years later, while attending Naropa University, Rocheleau steadily became connected to the blind community in Boulder and created the foundations of the Blind Café — a touring event that stops locally, as well as in Portland and Austin. The blind café has become an anticipated slice of culture in these communities. Rocheleau says he did the event just to try it, and did not expect it to turn into a sustainable business.

“I just kind of thought we’d just try it or do it,” Rocheleau says. “And then I was going to go on a trip — I happened to be in Big Sur, Calif. — and I was about to buy a ticket to Thailand, and I kept hearing this voice going off in my head [saying], ‘Go to Portland and start a blind café,’ and I was so unhappy not doing that, that I just went to Portland and started a blind café.”

The Blind Café also donates a portion of its proceeds to a local foundation supporting the blind community.

The Boulder Blind Café will be supporting the Boulder Guide Dog Puppy Raisers, an organization that trains puppies to be guide dogs for the blind.

Suspending sight helps take people out of their worries and into their present state, Rocheleau says.

“My understanding is that the fundamental principle is that people go in there, and because we don’t have our vision, we are suddenly like, ‘I don’t know how to do anything anymore,’ and the world is new,” Rocheleau says. “We have to engage and be more present and more aware and more sharp-thinking and mindful.”

The Blind Café seats patrons at community tables in a completely dark room. For many participants, this is the first time they have been unable to see.

“Chaos is actually part of it,” Rocheleau says. “It’s welcomed. I’m creating a situation where I want people to be uncomfortable — I want people to come  and be like, ‘I don’t know what to do!’ And all of a sudden they have to sum up that sense of courage that we all have inside of us when we’re faced with a challenging situation.”

The Blind Café is set up in the basement of a church. A blind wait staff helps those accustomed to sight — helping them walk, navigate and pour water in complete darkness. The event concludes with a musical performance from Rocheleau’s band, Rosh & One Eye Glass Broken, as well as speeches and a Q&A with some of the blind volunteers.

Gerry Leary is the keynote speaker at the Blind Café events and owner of the Unseen Bean, a local coffee shop and roasting company. In his speech, Leary shares his experiences being born blind and answers the audience’s questions about the sightless world.

“I can’t compare this to a normal life because I’ve never lived a normal life,” Leary says. “I have been blind since I was born … so I have no perception at all of vision or no understanding of what it is other than what you might technically describe on paper.”

Rocheleau says that Leary helps ease the discomfort of people who find themselves sightless for the first time at the Blind Café, and also ease the sense of isolation many blind individuals feel.

“So, in essence, we try to build a situation that shows life as a blind person as being normal, and life as a sighted person as being different,” Leary says. “We try to set up a situation such that people can use their other senses to learn about and understand their world and try it without vision.”

Leary says, as far as he’s concerned, life without vision is more a nuisance than a disability. He found early success in fields requiring kinetic skills, working as a car mechanic for 40 years and a coffee roaster.

Leary says he started working on cars at the age of 2. While his brothers were interested in comic books and television, Leary found the sound and mechanics of cars to be enthralling.

“My world was discoverable through my hands,” Leary says. “So that’s where my eyes were. I could look at cars because they were hard, solid objects and they were in pieces, and pieces could come off and go back on and they had nuts and bolts and that means I could take them off and put them back on. I could ask about them and learn about them, and I could experiment with them. So for me that was a real avenue for stimulation.”

Rocheleau says that the event is in no way a simulation of what it means to be blind, but does help build community, create mental presence in sighted individuals and help build blind awareness.

“They discover that functioning as a blind person is not nearly as hard as they thought it was,” Leary says. “They do realize that it’s an awful lot of work to change, but they realize that it’s possible.”

Rocheleau says the Blind Café also helps empower the blind wait staff by putting them in a leadership position.

“It’s a reverse role,” he says. “Usually, a blind person is walking down the street and people come up to them and say, ‘Hey, can I help you? Do you need any help?’ ... But in this situation, when you’re in the dark — say you’re a guest and you just spilled water all over yourself and your neighbor, and you need a napkin, and you don’t know how to function, and you’ve got to go to the bathroom — you can call a server, and they can lead you.”

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