Members of the UW Extension leadership development program went through a unique exercise in empathy Dec. 21. To better understand what daily life is like for blind people, members were blindfolded and had to walk across the street from the UW Extension office to the Beyond the Daily Grind Cafe in Mauston. There, they ate a meal while blindfolded. To ensure safety, the members were supervised by UW Extension staff.

Without using their eyesight, volunteers had to navigate the meal. Feeling for utensils, carefully guiding food towards their mouths, tentatively reaching for cups of hot coffee and tea, the volunteers learned how difficult an otherwise thoughtless task can be without vision.

After the meal, Lori Schmiege spoke to the volunteers. Schmiege is legally blind and a graduate of the UW Extension leadership development program.

“Don’t be afraid to ask can ‘I help you, is there anything you need?’” Schmiege said. “Listen to what the person tells you.”

Schmiege said it was important to never pull a blind person to guide them. “We take elbows, and will kind of communicate what we need you to do to lead us.” Schmiege demonstrated with a volunteer how to properly lead a blind person. Announcing environmental details such as “door on right” can help the person maintain some independence and control.

Schmiege also emphasized not all blind people are the same. “We’re as different as anybody in this room is different,” Schmiege said.

Volunteers said while blindfolded, their other senses “picked up” because they had to rely on them more.

“When we were walking I was really scared,” said Emma Glanzer “I think I whimpered at one point.” Glanzer said it was easier for her once she was in the cafe.

Seth Westberg said being blindfolded made him less picky with his food. “I was just less picky, I can’t help what it is (so) I’ll just let it be.”

Schmiege said her independence allows her to continue pursuing hobbies she loves, such as gardening. She joked about weeds being a manageable task for her, but the weedwacker can create collateral damage. “I took out some beautiful lily plants (but) they came back,” Schmiege said. “I do better with hand tools.”

When asked about cooking and baking, Schmiege said organizational skills were very important for her to keep things where they belong. And when it comes to keeping spices in order, she uses her nose.

Kathryn Heitman described the event as “a very humbling experience and I had to be very trusting.”

UW Extension Community Resource Development Educator Gary Kirking said the event was “full experiential learning.”

Afterward, volunteers visited the Boorman House and learned about its history.

You can reach Jake Ekdahl on Twitter @JakeaEkdahl