Dina’s foot hit the curb, and her body jolted forward. The cane fell off her hand, and she felt her palms and knees hitting the hot sidewalk. The fall reminded her of her days at elementary school, but her body was now much older to take it gracefully. It was painful. And despite the fact that it was early afternoon, it was pitch black. Her mind hated the paradox, but she knew that if she needed to survive, she’d better adjust to her new situation. Everything sounded much louder: car honking on the street she just ran across, voices of pedestrians, and footsteps on the sidewalk she just fell on. How would she ever get used to this?
She felt a couple of strong hands helping her get up, and another handing her the cane that fell off. A female voice asked her if she needed help getting to where she wanted. She thanked her. She knew that if she started asking for help this early in the journey, she would never be able to go anywhere on her own.
She dusted off her pants with her scraped palms, and resumed her walk in the darkness. She counted the steps to her next turn, feeling her way around the bumps and holes on the sidewalk with her white cane. That day, there were no street names, no visual landmarks, and no red lights. It took her more than two hours to walk home from school. A journey that took less than 20 minutes only few days earlier, when her world still had light.
For the following weeks, Dina experienced almost everything a blind person would go through to adjust to her new world. One where ears replaced her eyes during long lonely trips on uneven sidewalks, busy streets, and crowded public transportation. Being blind is one thing, but being blind in Egypt was a completely different story. She knew that she had to go through all of it, to understand what it feels like to be one. She knew that if she couldn’t live it, she wouldn’t be able to help them. That’s why she decided for her graduation project as a vision therapist, to tape two cotton patches on her eyes, wear a pair of dark glasses, and live for three weeks as a blind person.
Last time I visited Egypt, Dina told me her story, and I could immediately see how her world was transformed. She no longer describing her patients’ experiences, she was describing her own because she’d lived as one of them. I remember to this day her exact words "Everything I studied was just a theory. When I asked them about their challenges and problems, I tried hard to relate to their answers but honestly couldn’t. Now I hear them talk and I nod – even though they can’t see me. I nod because I know what it is to be there. Sometimes, I ask them advice about how they coped with a particluar situation, and often they ask "Have you ever been blind before? You describe my world better than I would describe it myself."
Since her graduation with honors from the school of education, Dina continued to do this ritual every year. Her patients are constantly amazed by her ability to describe their challenges as if she were one of them, not just someone who’d studied them in order to help them. She continuously crosses the bridge between her world and theirs, and returns with a wealth of insight for her work and Ph.D. research.
Hearing her story was humbling, because Dina never read about customer development, and never had any entrepreneurial inclinations. Yet she was doing something that most business don’t take the time to do.
Sometimes all we need is a little bit of compassion, sympathy, and the willingness to leave our world and step into someone else’s shoes.