Reading with fingertips: a story of a blind philology student
In a contribution to Social Inclusion Days our team has spoken with Oksana Osadchaya - a blind philology bachelor student from Higher School of Economics. We asked her about difficulties that visually impaired people face while living and studying in a huge city like Moscow and whether she feels included at her university and faculty.
Oksana, are you working or receiving a scholarship at the moment?
I could not get a scholarship because of an unsatisfying mark in English. Seeing as how there is no guarantee that I will manage to get it next time, I started working this summer. I sing in a church choir, where my salary depends on the number of working days, so I have almost no holidays. Initially, during the construction of our church it was considered that the choir would consist only of blind singers. Now there are also a lot of braillists (10-12 people).
Please, tell us about your previous work experience before joining the church choir.
Once I considered making audio transcriptions, but then two problems occurred: the first one regarded low payment (400-500 rubles per one transcript, editor’s note - it’s less than 6 Euros), the second - relationships with the employers. When I asked them to warn me in advance if some parts of the text needed to be highlighted (because I can miss them), a common reaction followed: "Why do you work, if you cannot see?". Of course, it is not simple, but when you need money, you are ready to apply for any job even knowing that it is going to be tough. It seems unfair that they would decline my work only because of my inability to see.
We know that besides studying and working, you also manage to engage in voluntary activities. What are the projects in which you take part?
I often make homemade pastries for charity fairs or bake sales which are held in our university. If I find out about them beforehand so that there is some spare time, I surely take part. Now it is more difficult for me to do it spontaneously, because of my morning work in the choir.
Do you actively participate in university activities and organizations? Are they accessible for you?
I do not think they are not. Quite often, whether something is accessible or not depends on ourselves, because most of the nuances can be resolved. The lack of time - that is another matter, although I do want to study, be a volunteer, do sports etc. I would love to play in the university theatre, but it is not that easy at all, when being employed on a regular basis. Work takes a lot of time and requires investments of efforts: I wake up at 6-7 a.m. and go to the church, sing for two hours and by 11 a.m. I am already in the class.
Quite often whether it is accessible or not depends on ourselves, because most of the nuances can be resolved.
Speaking about education, which difficulties do blind people have to face during passing final high school examinations or participating in school subjects tournaments?
Already now, the final exams can be taken in Braille, which is quite simple: completed tasks are translated into written Russian and then checked. But as for the subject tournaments it is more complicated, as far as the tasks are not adapted for people with visual impairment. For example, when participating in Moscow Philological Olympiad (note: prestigious school tournament guaranteeing access to a university) I was supposed to match pictures with the passages from a novel, which obviously prevented me from completing the task. But regarding the final state examinations, if a person cannot complete a task due to his physical disabilities, it has to be replaced with a task of similar complexity.
You have mentioned you were participating in a Philological Olympiad. So, what program are you enrolled at and how did you choose your field of studies? Have you had any difficulties while obtaining your Bachelor degree in Higher School of Economics (HSE)?
I am currently pursuing my Bachelor degree in Philology, having a deeper specialization in the Old Russian language. I have always had a keen interest in literature and I think that it has determined my study path to a huge extent. Although I should admit, it might be challenging for me sometimes to follow the course because of the unavailability of the information in Braille, even in the Internet. Previously I thought that helping people with hearing and visual impairments would be the sphere of my volunteering activities, but I realized that I do not want to separate my professional and volunteer interests any longer. I would like to create projects for helping blind and deaf people, starting from my field of studies and ending up with facilitation of the access to information and environment.
You are studying defectology. Do you want to professionally connect your life with this field in the future?
Partially, yes, especially if I get the chance to combine philology, linguistics and some other humanitarian sciences. I would like to work on the development of Old Russian in Braille, which totally meets my personal and professional interests for it being an interdisciplinary field of research based on philology and defectology. There I would need to take into consideration peculiarities in perception of a blind person and apply them to philological literacy. I would love to contribute to facilitation of education process for both students and professors.
What will you start with, if you decide to develop teaching for blind people?
It is essential to examine the topic of teaching foreign languages for blind people. Knowledge of other languages provides many advantages such as communication with people from other countries, reading books in their original languages, access to best practices in your field of study, let alone a wider range of job opportunities. Usually, in a primary school schoolchildren along with English can choose a second language to learn. However, in schools for children who have special educational needs it is not common to teach any foreign language, and even in Moscow there is an inequality of education between the two types of schools. Of course, I am all for inclusive education, yet there is a lot to do from the side of the society. There are two crucial questions which occur:
· Is a blind person ready to communicate with the society in a school environment?
· Is the society ready to do the same?
Most of children in Moscow can choose whether to study in a usual school or a gymnasium, which offers a better preparation for final exams and builds a solid base for further academic studies. At the same time, schools for children with special educational needs cannot provide the same quality of studies for their pupils, meaning you have to study a lot by yourself.
Even though Russia has ratified European act on the rights of children with disabilities, guaranteeing by this access to both types of schools for everyone, the reality is still very different. In lots of schools there are no special teaching methods for children with disabilities and no professionals who would facilitate their integration into study environment, that means most of these children are still excluded from the common schools.
Of course, I am all for inclusive education, yet there is a lot to do from the side of the society.
How would you access the university environment for people with disabilities in HSE?
Actually, it is all right. It is obvious that no one will learn about your needs, until you claim for them. In HSE this system works properly. When needed, the University can support you financially or once, after announcing the need for a Braille display, HSE purchased one so that the student could follow his studies. In addition, HSE is currently working on adapting university buildings and classrooms for wheelchairs. The development of the university environment for people with disabilities have started rather recently, but I am sure it will create all the necessary conditions for educating people regardless of their possible physical impairments.
Is there any equipment to help blind people in HSE?
Yes, our university has purchased special Braille printers. It was my initiative, because I had to print everything on my own in Russian State Library for Blind and it costed quite a lot. I was extremely glad about the purchase, because now whenever I need to have something printed I can do it directly in the classroom. Moreover, I am sure other HSE students who have similar needs will also benefit from it. Although, to be honest, I cannot always use this printer, as texts printed in Braille are three times as long as ones in Russian. For example, a text which consists of 200 pages in Russian, would turn into 600 pages in Braille. In this case, I certainly do not print the document, but read it from a Braille display, which is a special computer output device, that transforms the text in six-dotted symbols in Braille. For a deaf blind person it is the only way to work with computers. Unfortunately, this equipment is extremely expensive and its price can reach 3,500 EUR.
Which programs do you use to work with technological devices?
There are special programs available for downloading which transform texts written on the screen into voice messages; some PCs have them even pre-installed. Moreover, most of today’s cellphones have the voiceover function in their basic configuration, which significantly simplifies the process of information search. In addition, when it comes to the Internet surfing, there are many websites adapted for people with reduced visual acuity. It has become rather spread to introduce images with audio codes, although it has not been implemented everywhere yet. Also, to be honest, some of them are not especially helpful when it comes to practical usage. Quite often, they are created without those, whom they were done for. If we are talking about impaired people, it is necessary to consult them and involve them directly into the process of the problem solving.
I saw you had some films on your PC. Can you explain how it works?
The films have special audio descriptions, which contain verbal information on what is going on the screen. A translator should describe the scenes in a way that a blind person would be able to understand, trying to avoid any personal judgments. People often access objects with adjectives like "beautiful", but this information is irrelevant for someone who cannot see. The task of the narrator is to describe the scene in a way I would find beautiful without actually seeing the image. A film score is also extremely important: the voices should not be stifled.
When it comes to theaters, there are plays with audio description as well. There you get a small earphone and an audio descriptor sitting in the balcony describes you the performance as he sees it. Although unfortunately, it is a comparatively rare and quite expensive practice.
Is there any way I can help deafblind people?
In Moscow there is so-called School of Humanity, where they teach the society to adequately react to the needs of disabled people. It is important to understand that we are all equal and even aiming to help, one does not simply interfere the privacy of others without a permit. It would be inaccurate to assume that deafblind people spend their lives in total silence or darkness. Everyone needs an individual approach, including different types of communication: i.e. manual tactual or manual visual sign languages. The School is focused on both the increase of inclusive education and social integration of blind and deafblind people. It is commonly considered that people with disabilities are those in need, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that we are also those willing to help others. Everyone can be a volunteer regardless of their physical disabilities. The reverse is nothing more than a relic of the past, when people thought of themselves as benefactors helping poor or disadvantaged people, but did not consider them equal.
Everyone can be a volunteer regardless of their physical disabilities.
Which obstacles do you face while talking to people on the street?
Infrastructure unavailability scares me even less than inadequacy of people seeing a handicapped person. There is nothing more disturbing than people who are rushing to help you without even asking. Some of them perceive the help to a blind person as an a priori good deed; as something that gives them the right to tell everyone “I did a good thing”. If this is the purpose, then better not to try at all. If you do want to help a person with a disability, it is important to ask him or her, whether they really need help. One must not decide upon anything instead of the person whether he or she is disabled or not. It is a common misconception that we always need someone to help us.
Do you have to deal with aggression frequently?
Well, it also happens to me, as to anyone else. Sometimes I might graze with a cane against someone and despite my apology people can shout back or even push me. Obviously, they just do not understand that I am blind, but such cases are the exception rather than the rule.
To be honest, in most of the cases it is my aggression, that people have to deal with. As I already mentioned, people often try to impose their help without asking me. I have been studying in HSE for 3 years and I perfectly know each corner on my way to the university. And I cannot remain calm when someone approaches me, grabs me by the hand and leads to somewhere. Not only such an action is unpleasant, but it also can be quite unsafe and disorienting. Some people do not understand how it is possible to navigate yourself in a city or to go up the stairs if you are blind. I have faced a lot of misconceptions of blind people and it is extremely annoying that people do not see us as full members of the society. Sometimes they are even trying to put money in my hand, apparently assuming I am incapable of earning my own living. I am annoyed by people seeing me as an incomplete human.
What is needed to be done to remove the prejudices against blind people?
First, and most importantly, people should establish communication with blind people in the same manner as they are talking to anyone else. The absence of vision itself does not bother me, but the increased attention towards this fact does. For me, it signifies that people do not see me equal, but look down like if I needed special attitude. In my opinion, people lack general help culture and comprehension of basic dialogue principles, regardless of whom they are communicating with.
First, and most importantly, people should establish communication with blind people in the same manner as they are talking to anyone else.
Oksana, thank you so much for your time. We appreciated your readiness to share your experience with us. We wish you all the best for your studies and work!