Andreas Heinecke is overcoming the barriers between "us" and "them" by creating exchange platforms that immerse people in worlds very different from their own in order to break down prejudices, to communicate and understand barriers that exist across different cultures, and to empower marginalized people. Andreas’ first and most widespread platform is “Dialogue in the Dark” where participants experience darkness and blind people teach them how to see. The platform does not inspire pity but instead enables interaction and builds respect, understanding, and even wonder by redefining “disability” as “ability” and “otherness” as “likeness.”
The New Idea
Andreas is concerned with people who are marginalized regardless of whether they come from a different ethnicity, are disabled, or are elderly. Rather than trying to focus on and serve that marginalized group, however, he focuses on the interaction between “them” and “us.” By building platforms where the disabled guide the non-disabled, he is bringing understanding, fascination and even delight across the groups by forcing interaction that go beyond stereotypes, prejudices and fears.
His first platform, “Dialogue in the Dark,” has empowered more than 4,000 blind people in 19 countries and more than 130 cities from disadvantaged backgrounds by giving them for the first time in their life the opportunity to showcase their talents and skills. They manage the platform and teach visitors (including senior executives from companies) how to see without eyes, thereby acquiring leadership, communication, and management skills (in traditional rehab programs, disabled people seldom have direct interaction with the public and rarely exercise leadership with the public). The vast majority of the “Dialogue in the Dark” employees have never held a formal job before, and 40 percent of them successfully gain a job placement with a “normal” company in the private or public sector between a week and a year and a half with Dialogue.
“Dialogue in the Dark” has allowed over 4 million people in 19 countries the experience of being out of sight for an hour, several hours, or longer. Participants enter into a state of de-equilibrium as they lose normal points of reference, and they are forced to accept their own limitations and allow themselves to be helped along by their blind guide. Andreas builds in workshops around the experience that train people in companies and schools how to deal with people with different abilities—whether those abilities derive from disabilities or otherwise. The emphasis is not on the difficulty and the problem, but on the new, often quite superior skills that blind people must develop to function in the sighted world—and how we can learn from them. For example, human resources managers find it helpful to learn “in the dark” how to hold telephone interviews with prospective employees. Andreas has also developed another platform, called “Scenes of Silence”—to bring people into the world of silence—where deaf and mute people teach us a great deal about communication. Further plans include creating the experience of old age, migration, exile, and crime and punishment.
Andreas aims to create a Social Science “Center” that allows people to explore the social side of the human experience; where they learn about the world from other people’s perspectives. For example, his blind and disabled employees from all over the world form a global network—they train each other, exchange experience and knowledge, and recognize that many of their needs are global in nature.
The interaction between “abled” and “disabled” people is often hindered by stereotypes, fears, avoidance and prejudices. Andreas had his own eye-opening moment when he noticed that someone’s disability was more of a problem for the people around him than for the disabled person. He learned that 610 million people are disabled worldwide, out of whom 400 million live in the developing world, and 38 million in Europe. Research shows that while they are all labeled “disabled,” only approximately 5 percent of them regard themselves as such. Andreas also realized that disabled people virtually never speak about their disabilities or how their disabilities impinge on their lives when talking among each other.
In different countries, there are different levels of understanding, levels of support, and levels of access for the disabled. Andreas started in Germany where the physical needs of the disabled are generally well provided for by government welfare. There are schools for the blind and other programs for those with disabilities. Still, only about 15 percent have jobs. Many places provide access for wheelchairs, but it is often limited. Buses “kneel” and have a place for wheelchairs to be secured in place. Subways, however, only have access in about 25 percent of the stations.
Integration efforts notwithstanding, the opinion prevails that disability is of “less worth than normal.” The uneasiness many people feel about blind and disabled people leads to an “avoidance strategy”—which then leads to marginalization and discrimination.
Fear and pity color the way non-disabled people view the lives and problems of the disabled. Simulations of blindness already exist in Germany and other countries, but they are usually done for classes where they are teaching people how to approach the blind, how to help the blind. The experiences are often to show how difficult the life of a disabled person is and often builds more sympathy than understanding. The blindfolded person is often led around by someone sighted, who shows how dependent the blind must be. However, in these types of experiences, very few people participate and often it is through educational programs in social work.
In order to overcome barriers between “us” and “them” and begin to reverse deeply held prejudice and pity for the disabled, Andreas developed strategies to engage and enlighten individuals through action rather than words. It is in the harnessing of the power of shared experience that Andreas’ model thrives. He began with his “Dialogue in the Dark” program in 1988 and has since developed a large array of similar programs that provide powerful experiences which help to shift mindsets across societies.
Visitors begin by being immersed in total darkness and are guided around by a blind person. The tour takes at least one and a half hours and visitors are guided through different rooms and (artificial) environments, such as a forest, a boat trip on the sea, a city center, a vegetable stand, a sound room, ending in a bar where visitors can order a drink or something to eat. They go in small groups, with one blind guide (although people are not always aware that the guide is blind until later). The guide leads, but the group is large enough that visitors must also rely on each other, in order not to lose track of where the group is going.
In the beginning, the focus is mainly on making one’s way through, thereby learning how wind and raindrops can teach you a lot about orientation, that smell and texture are as important as color, that someone’s voice communicates more than you ever thought. Near the end, the visitors and the guide sit together in the dark and the guests can ask all the questions they ever wanted to ask (and probably never dared to)—the more cognitive part. The blind person, normally the presumed “weaker” and inferior, is now the one doing the teaching.
In special seminars, which are being continuously developed and expanded, the understanding and revelations are deepened. Andreas uses these seminars to train school classes, companies, and especially human resource departments and executive teams, trying to both change the way “normal” people think about and relate to otherness, and also increase diversity in their respective companies.
he “museums” are run by blind and visually impaired people and also various other disabled people. In each country, Andreas pulls the staff from that country, looking for “stellar” disabled people to represent the whole group. In setting up the staff this way, he is trying to show strength and talent among the disabled. In most places, for instance, a blind person is the “master guide,” responsible for training the others. The staff are not only disabled, but generally from various underprivileged backgrounds. Many do not have formal degrees or CVs. Often, their job with “Dialogue in the Dark” is the first job they ever had. They learn not only basic skills such as punctuality, but also management skills, communication skills, responsibility, and more; discovering leadership qualities in the process, which many of them did not previously know they possessed. Since the guides share visual disabilities, they tend to be very supportive of one another, allowing slower, or lower functioning individuals, to advance at their own rate of ability.
In cooperation with the local community, the local government Labour Office, and local companies, “Dialogue in the Dark” also aims to create permanent job placements for its staff in the official labor market. The museum is the training ground where the disabled are given the opportunity to prove themselves, and potential employers are given the opportunity to see that disabled people can be a valuable addition to their workforce. Forty percent of Dialogue’s employees find a job in the private sector after a year and a half.
From Dialogue, a variety of spin-off events and programs have emerged, apart from the seminars and trainings for schools and companies mentioned above. Andreas began “Blindspot,” the first blind film festival, that called for and received short films on the subject of blind-sighted interaction. A special prize was reserved for best film among the teams with both blind and sighted people. A blind photographer was one of the panelists. In another spin-off two years ago, his blind people were the “models” in a catwalk fashion show of Otto, one of the largest German fashion mail order houses. Others have copied his model and have been running very popular “Dinner in the Dark” experiences in several cities around Germany and abroad.
Andreas always makes it clear that for him, the blind are just an example of how we deal with otherness. Last year in Paris, Andreas pioneered his second major platform, called “Scenes of Silence,” where instead of blind people, he has deaf and mute people leading visitors through the a completely silent world. As you learn how to see from the blind, you learn how to communicate from people who are deaf and mute.
He is building a citizen base for each exhibit. The permanent and traveling exhibits charge entrance fees, usually modest (€12 per adult in Germany). Together with the cafes inside and outside the exhibit the income covers 80 percent of the cost of the permanent exhibit in Hamburg.
Since starting in Frankfurt, Germany in 1988, “Dialogue in the Dark” has run in 130 cities in 19 countries, including Japan, Israel, Mexico, and most recently Brazil. Since his first permanent exhibit opened its doors in Hamburg in 2000, nearly 400,000 visitors have participated in the exhibit and surrounding events. Worldwide, over 4 million people have experienced “Dialogue in the Dark.”
Internationally, when others want to develop a “Dialogue in the Dark,” Andreas works closely with them, providing the concept, building the sets, consulting on all the pieces. Then the local exhibitors who run the program pay Andreas’ organization an ongoing consulting fee or “royalty” fee of $180 per day of the exhibit (about $4,000 per month). The royalty generally amounts to 7 percent of an exhibit’s revenue. Andreas’ organization pulls in around US$200,000-$300,000 per year this way to fund its international expansion and development of new platforms.
The exhibits run anywhere from four weeks to 12 months. In Milan, the exhibit ran for six months but they had 2,000 people on the waiting list so now they are restarting it in another location to run for another 12 months, as a likely precursor to a permanent exhibit. In Israel, the program had already been running for 12 months by March 2005 when it was extended by 18 months to December 2006. In June 2005, Andreas brought people from 25 countries together in Hamburg that have launched or want to launch exhibits in their countries. This is the ninth such international planning meeting he has held in the last few years.
From his headquarters in Hamburg, Andreas is building his next exhibit prototypes. Permanent exhibits are currently in Frankfurt, Leipzig, Milan, Nijmwegen, Vienna, and Holon, and are planned for Mexico City, Barcelona, Campinas, São Paulo, London, and Tokyo. For two years, Dialogue is hosted in Copenhagen and this year temporary presentations were given in Brazil, Estonia, Germany, and as part of the Winter Olympic Games in Torino.
Andreas’ family is Jewish and German. Members of his mother’s family were victims of the Holocaust while his father’s side were supporters of the regime in a passive and an active way. As a child, he grew up with the very palpable tension, misunderstanding, and even fear that existed across these human borders. It was not until he was 13 years old that he learned that his Jewish relatives were murdered and that his mother had lost much of her family in WWII.
This realization, that he had both Jewish and German ancestry, made him start to search for answers to questions such as: Why do people marginalize others? How can part of my family have killed another part of my family? On what grounds do we judge people and feel inferior or superior? He wanted to understand how human beings can combine satanic and “normal” traits and how they can live in such deep denial. The impact of this research confirmed to him the importance of his quest for tolerance, open dialogue and exchange.
Later, as a journalist and documentarist at a southwestern German radio station in the 1970s, Andreas was assigned to manage a 24-year-old journalist who was returning to work after he had lost his sight in an accident. At first, he did not know what kind of work he could assign him. Andreas was startled to realize that this person could not even look up information in dictionaries or encyclopedias. Then he discovered his sympathy was misplaced. The young journalist had a keen sense of hearing, ability to listen, and to put pieces together. He had a great influence on Andreas and forced him to question what makes a truly valuable life. Andreas got an insight into what a world without sight would be.
He then switched jobs and began working with at the Frankfurt Association for the Blind (Stiftung Blindenanstalt), an official foundation in Germany helping the blind. He started to launch a new formation for blind and visually impaired people within the broadcasts and teamed up with a large computer company to develop electronic devices for blind people long before the Internet. He published an electronic newspaper, digital reference books, and established a database with job announcements.
In his work, he started to realize that a big problem was not in serving “them” but in fact in breaking down the barriers between those who were blind and those who were not. Ensuring that a blind person had a full life meant finding a way to make the sighted not fear and shun them. The idea for Dialog in the Dark and now his subsequent programs blossomed, and he left the Association to start his own ten years ago. He has since devoted himself to finding new ways to bridge the gaps across human divides through direct human experience.
Featured in Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World, by Bev Schwartz (2012)