The staff at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Minneapolis wore blindfolds last week, and it wasn't because they were snoozing during the day.
They were preparing for the arrival of the annual convention of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, a 40-year-old national organization that raises about $36 million a year for research to combat the condition.
Bartenders, desk clerks, banquet workers and others slipped on black masks while partners helped them maneuver through the hotel lobby and stairs, eat at the restaurant and "see'' their room.
Banquets manager Emily Wilkens was one of those being led down a staircase by a guide.
"There's four steps here ... one, two, three, and that's the bottom,'' said a foundation guide to Wilkens, holding her arm. "Now walk forward some more.''
"Are there more stairs there?'' asked Wilkens, walking hesitantly.
"Yes there are,'' responded the guide. "Now there's your hand rail.''
And so the conversation went, as Wilkens got a glimpse of what the hotel would feel like for its sight-impaired guests. About 500 people attended the conference last week, some with vision problems and some without, to learn about the latest advancements in the treatment of retinal diseases that afflict about 10 million Americans.
Those advancements include microchips implanted in the eyes, which have shown success in clinical trials in Europe; gene therapy and stem cell research. Summaries of the findings are online at www.fightblindness.org.
Julie Anderson, of Maple Grove, heads the foundation's Minnesota chapter, one of the largest in the nation with more than 3,000 members. The staff training, she said, "made a really big impact.''
"I was talking to a bartender, and he told me he learned not to put a straw in a cocktail,'' she said. "The wait staff made sure to tap you on the shoulder or say, 'I'm putting down your plate.' It's little things that make a big difference to us.''
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511