Sights set on fun food experience
Visually impaired runner and business consultant Tony Ward is helping organisers with a Dine in the Dark event, writes JOANNE HUNT
DINERS AT this year’s Taste of Dublin festival will have more than their taste buds challenged if Tony Ward has anything to do with it. A host at Dine in the Dark, a pop-up restaurant in which food from award-winning chefs is served by blind waiting staff to diners immersed in complete darkness; it promises to be a feast for the senses.
“It sort of turns the tables,” says Ward, a Monaghan native who was diagnosed with the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa at the age of 29. “In there, we are going to know everything and those who are fully sighted are going to be totally dependent on us.”
The event is the brainchild of disability organisation Kanchi. Ward is one of a number of people advising Kanchi on its strategy. But for him, dining out wasn’t always such a pleasant experience. A chartered accountant, the period of failing eyesight prior to diagnosis was a challenging time.
“If I was out working with a client and they’d say, ‘let’s go for lunch’, I used to panic,” he recalls. “All I could think of from that point was ‘Oh f**k, how am I going to read the menu?’ Then you sort of sit down and pretend and say right, I’ll listen carefully to what everyone else orders. When I think of the energy that was involved in all that subterfuge . . .”
While his eyesight was always poor, it was sufficient to get him through school and a commerce degree at UCD. By the mid 1990s, however, and in the world of work, things started to deteriorate. “I came back from holiday and went back into the office and I just kept putting figures in the wrong place. I had a page and if a five year old handed it in, the teacher would say go back and do it again. It was a mess. I realised, I just can’t do this anymore.”
He says the formal diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa was almost a relief. Attending ophthalmic experts from the age of 25, he feels they failed to give him a straight answer.
“They didn’t diagnose it. I don’t know if that’s because they didn’t see it, couldn’t see it or just didn’t want to alarm me,” he says. “I don’t know if it was because the professionals were afraid to tell you because they know nothing can be done and they don’t think there is any point in telling you, but there was definitely a little bit of that going on in the 90s.”
The eventual diagnosis brought relief. “The previous four years had me muddling around in the sighted world, trying to cover my tracks, pretend I could work, pretend I could see at night. You live in this sort of no-man’s land with no diagnosis.”
Though born with the disease, Ward had no indication it was in his genes. “There was no indication whatsoever in my family. For me, it was a recessive condition where I guess my parents were both carriers of this recessive gene.”