Last September 14, 2013, Teach for the Philippines (TFP) and Ashoka Philippines hosted a talk with Andreas Heinecke, the CEO and founder of Dialogue in the Dark, a social enterprise that offers exhibitions, workshops, and dining experiences in total darkness, thereby promoting exchange between the blind and seeing, changing perspectives on disability, and creating jobs for the visually impaired worldwide.
The first Ashoka Fellow from Western Europe and an Honorary Professor of Social Business at the European Business School, Andreas has won accolades from global award-giving bodies for his work in facilitating experiences that allow people a new way to see the world. Since its inception in 1988, Dialogue in the Dark has been presented in 38 countries and 130 cities around the world.
Addressing the crowd of students, young professionals and social entrepreneurs at TFP headquarters, DiD founder Andreas spoke about two incidents that profoundly shaped his life:
1) An encounter with a blind journalist that he visited at home on an assignment for a radio station, which forced him to confront his own preconceived notions about disability
2) The realization as a young, patriotic German boy that he was related to Nazi supporters on his father’s side as well as Holocaust victims on his mother’s side
These experiences led him to question what makes a truly valuable life, the process of marginalization and exclusion, and the grounds under which people felt inferior or superior. His search for answers began the start of his quest for tolerance, open dialogue, and exchange.
These ideas and German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s “Principles of Dialogue,” which stresses learning through interaction and encounter, gave rise to the Dialogue in the Dark exhibits, in which visitors are led by blind guides in groups through a series of specially constructed dark exhibitions (to simulate the experience of blindness), and each side emerges with realizations about how the other half lives.
DiD aims to include socially marginalized people on a global basis. It also aims to raise awareness and shift perspectives towards “otherness,” to overcome barriers between “us” and “them,” and to provide employment for disabled people globally (thereby shifting disabilities to abilities).
All in all, its social agenda does not sell “blindness” per se — participants naturally become aware of disability and blindness as they go through the experience. In the process, blindness gets positioned in a new way – an asset, something empowering, and even a source of income, as the visually impaired are employed as guides to help visitors explore the unseen.
As described in a recent review:
“In Dialogue in the Dark a reversal of roles is created: sighted people are torn out of their familiar environments, losing the sense they rely on most – their sight. Blind people guide them; provide them with security and a sense of orientation – transmitting a world without pictures. The blind and partially sighted guides open the visitors’ eyes in the dark to show them that their world is not poorer – just different.”
The Business Model
After encountering the limitations of government funding, Andreas says he was forced to become an entrepreneur, relying on market mechanisms to pursue his mission.
Guests at the DiD exhibit pay 19 EUR per ticket, a price tag that positions it as an entertainment, social, and learning experience, similar to a trip to the museum or a cultural show. Apart from exhibits, DiD revenue streams include a massively popular series called Dinner in the Dark and Leadership Development and Team Training services for corporate clients such as Google, Goldman Sachs, and Deutsche Bank. DID also includes an International Franchise Consulting arm that advises institutions and individuals who want to set up DID in their home countries.
To this day, Andreas sees money as a means to an end, and reinvests what he earns into the concept. His business model is dynamic and refined every 4-5 years. Future plans include two offshoots, including Dialogue in Silence, which aims to raise awareness about the experience of the deaf through non-verbal communication, and Dialogue in Time, a reflection and discussion on aging.
Dialogue in the Dark’s 22 permanent sites (as of 2012), 17 exhibitions, and 5 business workshop centers worldwide have served over 7 million visitors, employed nearly 400 visually impaired people, and been featured in over 500 articles. The original exhibit at the Hamburg flagship store has been sold out for years, with single visitors and families, tourists, schoolchildren, and corporate employees sharing their experiences and posting reflections on the experience.
Audience feedback has been overwhelmingly positive across the globe, with reactions the same in Japan as in Mexico — a great example of our shared human experience, under all the differences on the surface. What is essential, after all, is invisible to the eye.
Continued in Part II, in which we explore Andreas’ unique research methods for DiD, his extensive partner network, and the value of building a brand.
Credits: Heinecke, Andreas. “Meet an Ashoka Fellow: Andreas Heinecke.” Teach for the Philippines and Ashoka Speaker Series. Makati. September 14, 2013.
Credit for the concepts discussed goes to Andreas, but any errors in transcribing and interpreting his speech are my own.
References: Dialogue in the Dark. http://www.dialogue-in-the-dark.com/