As many of you are aware, there is a bit of a security situation here in Israel.  Because of this security situation, we have been in the northern part of Israel for longer than expected and hence planning extra days of sightseeing.  We learned that in Kibbutz Lavi, just a short walk from where we are staying in Hadayot, there is a garden designed specifically for blind people.  There are many plants with clear smells and touches.  All the plants have signs indicating the plant name in Hebrew, England, and Hebrew braille*.  Railings surround most of the garden to guide you, and there is a 3D map of the views from the garden.  Obviously, we had to check it out.

We brought that whole kvutza (group) to the garden, asking campers to pair up; one partner to cover their eyes and the other to be the leader.  About half way through, they would be asked to switch.  I’m sure this was not a new activity to many of them.  Whether it was a conversation about people with disabilities or a trust exercise, this is a common activity to have done. 

However, it was most interesting to watch Sol.  Sol had a partner who covered her eyes and was led by him.  In the words of Sol, ”the blind leading the sort of blind.”  Sol guided his partner through the garden, reading the names of the plants with ease due to his fluency in braille (both English and Hebrew).  He carefully narrated what he was doing and explained to his partner how to interact with her environment.  He was the only person to correctly identify the hadas plant (known in English as the myrtle) from the lulav used on Sukkot.  Sol was in his element. 

After the partners switched and finished the activity, we sat together to discuss and process the experience.   Here were some of the responses:

·         I felt scared.
·         I felt anxious.
·         I felt uncertain because I didn’t know what was coming.
·         I felt assaulted when X poked me!  Or grabbed my hand.  Or led me into a tree.  (usually followed by laughing)**
·         I felt weird.  My sense of touch and sound were heightened.
·         I felt more introverted because I didn’t really know what was going on around me.
·         I felt more extroverted.  I just kept wanting to talk to everyone around me so I knew who was there. 
·         I felt confused.
·         Sol I don’t know how you do this.  This was so hard!

Then the camper who had been led by Sol raised her hand.  She said she didn’t experience any of the negative emotions such as scared, anxious, uncertain, or confused.  She trusted Sol, she followed his directions, simply enjoying the garden for the smells and touches and sounds.  I ended by reminding the campers that we didn’t take them somewhere dirty or negative; we took them to a beautiful garden, overlooking the Galilee and Kneret.  While they may have had challenging emotions, ultimately this wasn’t about seeing how negative or impossible it was to experience the world without sight.  This was about experiencing something beautiful in a different way, the way Sol experiences it. 

At dinner, word spread that our group had gone on a special trip to the blind garden, led by Sol.  Other campers in other kvutzot (groups) were interested in this experience as well.  Sol offered a second tour on Shabbat afternoon.  So Saturday afternoon Sol led a group of 6 campers through the blind garden.  With this small intimate group, led entirely by Sol, the reactions were very similar to the girl who had partnered with Sol.  They felt safe, secure, and open to this new experience.  They were amazed by Sol’s ability to read the Hebrew braille.  They listened to Sol’s advice on how to find the Kneret on the 3D map (feel for the deepest hole!).

As an educator of both students with disabilities and typically developing students, I felt truly in honored to witness these interactions.  Sol comfortably took on his role as a leader, a role he does not get to assume very often.  His peers willingly took on the role of followers, taking Sol’s advice and guidance naturally.  Anyone who works regularly with teenagers knows that asking them follow directions can be challenging at best.  Yet these teenagers clearly had profound trust and respect for Sol as he introduced them to his world.  And that trust was not misplaced.  He led them through the blind garden with grace, poise, and confidence.

*Hebrew braille is written with the same characters as English braille.  Because of this, Hebrew braille is actually written left to right, the same direction as English writing.  If Hebrew braille were to be written from right to left, like the Hebrew language, the characters would be upside down.

**Some joked about feeling assaulted when a  seeing friend would grab them or poke them.  I reminded them that people with disabilities, even if they aren’t cognitive disabilities, have a higher rate of assault and sexual assault than the rest of the population.  I reminded them that while they were joking, it was not a joking matter.