'Dialog in the Dark' exhibit offers peek into the world of the blind

Derek Stephens, a 42-year-old college professor from Lithonia, began losing his sight two years ago.

Last summer, as Stephens was nearly blind, he heard about a traveling exhibit coming to Atlanta called "Dialog in the Dark," which allows full-sighted people to experience everyday life — a trip to the grocery store, crossing a busy city street — without seeing a thing.

"It brought me to tears," Stephens said of his first trip through "Dialog" in August. "It gave me an unbelievable feeling of self worth that I lost when I lost my sight. They validated that I still have feelings."

"Dialog," whose oddly spelled name references European roots, is part theme park attraction and part museum exhibition. Here's how it works (skip this part if you want to be surprised): Visitors pay $24 for an hour-long tour through several real-life galleries, such as a restaurant/bar or boat ride, while in complete darkness. Tours are in groups of 10 or less and led by visually impaired guides. Everyone gets a cane to help navigate the room-by-room experience.

The idea is to heighten the other four senses — touch, smell, taste and hearing — and experience life as a blind person, said Tom Zaller of Premier Exhibitions, which this year imported "Dialog" from its original home in Düsseldorf, Germany. It was born in 1989 and has since spread to several other overseas cities. Atlanta is the first U.S. city, with Kansas City, Kan., coming online Nov. 14.

"Not only is it great entertainment, it puts you on the edge of your comfort level, and you'll have a lot of fun," Zaller said. "We call it the greatest exhibition you'll never see."

In 1986, a German documentary filmmaker created "Dialog" when he was instructed to come up with a training program for a visually impaired co-worker. Twelve years later, he formed his own business and opened up the exhibition to the public. Over the years, "Dialog" has been replicated — sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently — in more than 150 cities. More than 6 million visitors have experienced it worldwide, according to the company's Web site.

Zaller and some co-workers at Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions recently experienced "Dialog" in Germany and decided to bring it to the United States.

In Atlanta, "Dialog in the Dark" is housed in a 20,000-square-foot event space above restaurants and shops at Atlantic Station. Organizers won't say how many people have visited since its opening in August. The exhibit is set to close in mid-February, but could be extended.

After the one-hour guided tour to places like "Dialog Park" and "Dialog Cafe," patrons are led to a lighted conference room where they can debrief and write thank-you notes to their guides.

On a recent Thursday, a group of elementary and middle school teachers took the "Dialog" journey as part of a team-building field trip.

"It was a wonderful experience," said Renee Toth, a second-grade teacher at Montclair Elementary in DeKalb County. "Being out of your element will help us teach students to appreciate what they have and see what life is like for those who cannot see the world."

Besides the entertainment and educational value, "Dialog" is creating jobs.

"They have hired 80 to 100 visually impaired people to work as guides, making it the largest employer of visually impaired people in Atlanta," said Subie Green, president of Atlanta's Center for the Visually Impaired. "That's wonderful."

Stephens, a part-time economics professor at DeVry Institute, was so impressed that he signed on to be a full-time guide. Each week, he leads 30 groups through the sightless world that he and 21 million other Americans venture through every day.

"This shows people, visually impaired and otherwise, that just because I may not be able to see everything," Stephens said recently between tours, "that doesn't mean I can't still have success, have a future."