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.”
“Dialogue in the Dark,” has empowered more than 4,000 blind people in 19 countries
The vast majority of the “Dialogue in the Dark” employees have never held a formal job before
40 percent of them successfully gained a job placement within a “normal” company
4 million people in 19 countries have experienced being out of sight for an hour or longer
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.
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.
„He wanted to understand how human beings can combine satanic and “normal” traits and how they can live in such deep denial.“
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.
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