Blind and deaf communities meet in South Bank’s Dialogue Hub

ONE South Bank hub, which boasts a café staffed by deaf baristas and a sensory experience controlled by the blind, hopes to spark the conversation.

The Dialogue Hub, a multifunctional space run by community interest firm Muse Projects, has been open on York Road at Waterloo Station since May.

Its Dialogue Experience, which involves visually impaired people guiding visitors around in an immersive experience in the dark, has been running since September.

Hakan Elbir, founder of Muse Projects and director of Dialog Hub, said: “On the one hand, we create a social impact, but on the other hand, we create job opportunities because many of our employees and volunteers had no social life and did not have a job, but now they have confidence and they have empowerment.

“We have received a lot of good feedback from visitors, many of whom admitted that they had a prejudice against people with disabilities and did not expect to see a blind person act as a leader in the dark.

“So their mindset has been changed by this.”

STARTS A DIALOGUE: Hakan Elbir in Dialog Hub

Muse Projects was established in 2018 as a non-profit organization that aims to increase awareness of disability and measure social impact by doing business in a more inclusive way.

With similar experiences that have been a worldwide success since it was first produced in 1988 in Germany, this version of the Dialogue Experience was originally created under the name Dialogue in the Dark in December 2019 in Hackney.

However, the pandemic forced the project to shut down in March 2020.

It received 5,000 visitors and was positively reviewed, with Secret London saying: “It is certainly the only London art exhibition that takes place in complete darkness, but despite that, it has the potential to be the most enlightening.”

The experience is now navigated by one of five tour guides on a rota.

It lasts about 40 minutes and runs Fridays and Saturdays with 11 sessions a day and a capacity of up to five in each group.

Elbir said: “Honestly, we all live in a bubble, including me, so people have to come and spend a few hours here chatting with our baristas and engaging with our travel guides to develop empathy.

“In theory, we keep saying we are different and inclusive, but in reality we are not, and we are the ones who actually cannot see and do not hear.”

Asad Islam, who is now Operations Manager at Dialog Hub, first came to the Hackney site as a visitor before volunteering and later being offered a job as an exhibition assistant.

Islam said: “Working with blind people in Hackney was a really positive experience and I found it, to say the least, eye-opening, puns.

“The guides make the experience and they all have a very different personality, they all bring a very different mood to it.

“It is really about getting involved in the guide and getting involved in blindness in a way that you would not otherwise have had, and creating the empathy situation where you almost feel vulnerable.

“Your safety or your movements are in the hands of someone else, which some people find annoying and some people find quite reassuring.

“You find that despite your guide not being able to see, he is just as adept at his actions.”

Asad Islam and Dialog Hub
SIGNS OF CHANGE: Asad Islam in Dialogue Hub

Islam explained that one of the guides, Mark, had been unemployed for a very long time before he got the role, and said that it has given him a new life in relation to his career and how he feels about himself .

The experience recently received its first school group, and the team is now working with teachers and the Lambeth Council to try to spread the word and encourage more schools to participate.

Islam said: “Last month we were very busy with Fridays and Saturdays that were almost fully booked.

“It’s been a pretty intense experience.”

Above the Dialogue experience and at the entrance to the Hub is the Dialogue Café, which is staffed by baristas who are deaf or hard of hearing, and where you can only order drinks in sign language.

It is open from 12-18 Monday to Thursday and 12-19 Friday to Saturday.

Using tablets on the disk, the cafe uses the InSignLanguage app, through which qualified British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters translate between audible English and sign language in real time, primarily so that blind tour guides can communicate with deaf baristas.

SOCIAL HUB: Dialogcafeen. Credit: Jerry Dobson

Islam said: “It is about creating a more inclusive society and we are a small cog in a bigger machine but we would like to think we are making an impact in our own way.

“We have collaborated with several organizations, including InSign and BlindAid and various other organizations on top of that, all of which have very similar visions as ourselves.

“By collaborating with these other projects and working as a team, we have a broader impact that we could not have alone, so it has been really positive and it works towards our basic vision.”

Elbir and Islam are both learning BSL, and the cafe receives many regular visitors both from the deaf community and those who want to practice their sign language.

This includes a woman who regularly comes in with her deaf son to show him that there are plenty of deaf people who are role models.

Landry Naubo, a barista at Dialogue Cafe, said: “I really enjoy working here, it’s beautiful.

“It’s so good because we’re able to communicate with other deaf customers and also able to use our sign language, so it’s great.

“And I like helping other people.”

COFFEE PLEASE: Landry Naubo at Dialogcafeen. Credit: Stephen Iliffe

The Hub also includes a workshop area and gallery where artists struggling to find affordable spaces can develop and exhibit their works.

This month, the work of Seçil Erel, a London-based contemporary artist born and raised in Istanbul, is on display.

An opening event for the exhibition was held on 11 November.

The hub will be open until at least mid-2022, but is currently housed in an Meanwhile Space, which is slated for demolition.

The team will soon prepare a social impact report, which they can share with partners, stakeholders and partners in an effort to find investment for a new place to continue their work in the future.

Featured Image Credit: Jerry Dobson

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