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Staff members outside the Dialogue Hub

Blind and deaf communities come together at South Bank’s Dialogue Hub

A South Bank hub which boasts a café staffed by deaf baristas and a sensory experience guided by the blind, is hoping to spark conversation.

The Dialogue Hub, a multi-purpose space run by community interest company Muse Projects, has been open on York Road by Waterloo Station since May.

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

Hakan Elbir, founding partner of Muse Projects and director of the Dialogue Hub, said: “On the one hand we are creating a social impact but on the other hand we are creating job opportunities, because many of our employees and volunteers didn’t have any social life and didn’t have a job, but now they have self-confidence and they have empowerment. 

“We’ve received a lot of good feedback from visitors, many of whom admitted that they had a prejudice against disabled people and didn’t expect to see a blind person acting as a leader in the dark. 

“So their mindset has been shifted by this.”

Hakan Elbir at the Dialogue Hub
STARTING A DIALOGUE: Hakan Elbir at the Dialogue Hub

Muse Projects was set up in 2018 as a not-for-profit organisation aiming to raise awareness about disability and measure social impact by doing business in a more inclusive way.

With similar experiences having been a success worldwide since one was first produced in 1988 in Germany, this version of the Dialogue Experience was originally set up under the name Dialogue in the Dark in December 2019 in Hackney.

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

It received 5,000 visitors and was reviewed positively, with Secret London saying: “It’s definitely the only London art exhibition that takes place completely in darkness, but despite that, it has the potential to be the most illuminating.”

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

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

Elbir said: “Frankly speaking we are all living in a bubble, including me, so people need to come and spend a couple of hours here to chat with our baristas and engage with our tour guides to develop empathy.

“In theory we keep saying that we are diverse and inclusive but in reality we are not, and we’re the ones actually who cannot see and cannot hear.”

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

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

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

“It really is about engaging with the guide and engaging with blindness in a way which you wouldn’t have otherwise, creating that situation of empathy where you feel almost vulnerable. 

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

“You discover that despite the fact that your guide can’t see, he is just as capable in his actions.”

Asad Islam at the Dialogue Hub
SIGNS OF CHANGE: Asad Islam at the Dialogue Hub

Islam explained that one of the guides, Mark, had been unemployed for a very lengthy amount of time before he got the role, and said it has given him a new lease of life in terms of 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 Lambeth Council to try and spread the word and encourage more schools to take part.

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

“It’s been quite an intense experience.”

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

It is open from 12-6pm Monday to Thursday, and 12-7pm Friday to Saturday.

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

SOCIAL HUB: The Dialogue Cafe. Credit: Jerry Dobson

Islam said: “It’s all about creating a more inclusive society and we’re a small cog in a bigger machine, but we’d like to think that we are making an impact in our own way.

“We’ve partnered with several organisations, including InSign and BlindAid and various other organisations on top of that, who all have very similar visions to ourselves.

“By collaborating with these other projects and working as a team we’re having a wider impact that we couldn’t have just by ourselves, so that’s been really positive and it works towards our fundamental vision.”

Elbir and Islam are both currently learning BSL and the cafe receives a lot of regular visitors both from the deaf community and those wishing to practice their sign language.

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

Landry Naubo, a barista at the 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 able to use our sign language as well so it’s fantastic.

“And I like helping other people.”

COFFEE PLEASE: Landry Naubo at the Dialogue Cafe. Credit: Stephen Iliffe

The Hub also includes a workshop area and gallery, where artists who struggle to find affordable spaces can develop and exhibit their pieces.

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 exhibit was held on 11 November.

The Hub will be open until at least mid-2022 but is currently housed in a Meanwhile Space which is scheduled for demolition.

The team will soon be preparing a social impact report to share with collaborators, stakeholders and partners, in a bid to find investment for a new space to continue their work into the future.

Featured image credit: Jerry Dobson

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