SPECIAL EDITION. The Traveller's Notebook

Travel essays by Oleg Kolpashchikov,
President of White Cane NGO,
visually disabled person

I didn’t manage to continue next day

The amazing city of San Francisco and our program has carried me away! I’m sitting together with all the others in the airport lounge zone, in a couple of hours is our flight to London. Aysha from Oman is flying with us, she will remain in the British capital for one day to see her son. Artyom and I will move on, through Moscow to Yekaterinburg. Artyom went for a walk around the airport. I can only imagine how he is tired, to put it mildly. Cho saw us off at the hotel, he all but wept. Katie, one of the four chaperons of our group, came with us to the airport. For three weeks Katie was carrying suitcases, driving the blind for lunch, and organizing the events. Every morning she said hello adding – Good, good, good. From San Francisco, she flew not to her native New York, but to the meeting in Denver, where it’s a terrible storm today. As far as I know, not so long ago Katie turned 72. The ladies in America are like that!

San Francisco has surprised me more than all the other cities and places visited. Nature, weather, geographic, and political conditions are amazing. The West Coast, not the largest city of the richest US state. A “mildly extreme” climate, as our chaperon Frank humorously put it. It seems to be south, but Frank that when the fog comes, people are frozen to the bone. Wonderful nature for agriculture and earthquakes that kill up to 2,500 persons at a time. Beautiful landscapes and sharks right in the bay killing at an average one person per month. Soft sun, fine warm sand on the beach – and three-meter-high waves of coldest waters of the Pacific Ocean. Sea lions at the rookery directly at the port – and a bulk carrier with 1500 containers coming. Launch site of the Gold rush, the city with Castro district, with again iridescent flags everywhere. The city with the largest Chinatown. It’s all San Francisco! Just imagine how the residents and the guests can feel! Nevertheless I can note the total “home” air of the city. Is the extreme presses, then, just like the weather, it presses mildly.

Yesterday, at the final session of the program we recalled other cities and states. Vermont with its largest city Burlington. We spent four warmest days in the homonymic hotel The Green Mountain, just Vermont in French. Colored people are rare here. As well as people in general are a rarity. As the bus driver who met us said, not long ago there were more cows in the state than people. It is also surprising that in the state which is home to 650,000 people, there is a branch of Association of the Blind and blind people with interesting experience that they shared with us at the meeting.

A couple of interesting points from the meeting with the local blind people. Firstly, there employment rate is about 20 percent, like that in Russia. Secondly, children get used to the white cane from their very childhood. I asked when they are allowed to go the city on their own, especially schoolchildren. The company specialist said they have no special schools, but in Massachusetts a special school has a test, after which students are free to go to the city with a cane. There is such a tricky crossroads where seven roads meet, and if a blind student overcomes it, they are allowed to move on their own. Genius is simplicity!

Another point about the blind in the United States: I noticed that the majority of people with disabilities have kind of special feelings in this country. For example, what is the difference between the blind and people in the wheelchair? Speaking about how they rehabilitate the blind, especially those who have lost their sight in adulthood, our Vermont colleagues noted that it is extremely difficult for people to admit the fact that they can’t drive a car. Of course, can you imagine an American who does not drive a car and can only travel by public transport? It seems to be all right, but the culture is like that: if you don’t drive your car, you’re like not quite normal. Those in wheelchairs have an opportunity to drive, while, before Google-car is completed, the blind are deprived of this opportunity.

Maybe the impression is deceptive. But it seems that American blind people have a touch of national inferiority, or rather the sense of isolation of the blind, in contrast to people in wheelchairs. While we met blind people in the streets only at the University of Berkeley in California, people in wheelchairs were ubiquitous.

That’s right, there are actually much less blind people, while people in wheelchairs can and should be active. Of course, special conditions are indispensable for this category. Access for people in wheelchairs is a fundamental point, in comparison with the blind.

I am continuing to write in our native Aeroflot plane on the flight “London – Moscow”. Five hours are still ahead before we reach home. Behind is a surprisingly easy flight over the ocean, the plane of United airlines was much more comfortable than KLM liner that took us to the United States three weeks ago.

Not that the trip to the USA is a “past life”, but it is incredibly far in the past. So much water has flowed under the bridge!

The last whom we had bidden good-bye at Heathrow was Aisha from Oman. A couple of warm words, a pair of handshakes – and we’re going home.

What else can I remember about Vermont? In the evening everyone presented their countries and organizations in the hotel room of Rano from Tajikistan, we read poetry in our native languages, someone sang, Rano danced, someone was in the national costumes. The Motherland is a great thing!

When I showed the forest road near Burlington to my wife Olga by Skype, she said that the landscape is almost the same as on the road to Chelyabinsk. Moreover, in those days it was up to 8 degrees below zero in Vermont, in the afternoon it was snowing. Many in our group, particularly the representatives of the “black continent” saw and felt the fresh snow for the first time in their life.

Actually, it’s hard to surprise an American with something American, but we’ve managed to do it. An exploration in the local “Liquor store” alcohol shop, revealed a unique “maple bourbon”, which means “maple whiskey.” Almost everyone knows that in these areas on the border with Canada, as well as in Canada itself, one of the most important products is maple syrup. But very few people know about whiskey, that’s why a certain range, or rather the flow of fans of this pleasant drink emerged in my room. The taste of bourbon combines with taste of maple syrup surprisingly well. Marcelo Gandaria, one of our four chaperons, noted another important fact: no side effects after maple whiskey in the morning.

In the same room I managed to cook a homemade soup, which was a success in all the men at the party and that three of us, Artyom Marcelo and I, finished at lunch on the last day in Vermont.

Marcelo, Argentine-born, a short, jovial, very active person. “Very active” is the wrong description for an American citizen. They all are. Yet Marcelo is different, you can feel his 24 years of army service. Now he is the man without property, he has sold everything and apparently lost his “property” perception. Marcelo is travelling the world participating in many similar projects, taking photos of everything around him, meeting with people, admiring nature, living a full life.

When in Chicago we met with young diplomats and presented our projects for the American youth without disabilities, we tried to attract young people, showing, for example, a video of “Sail spirit” with an inclusive team competing in the regatta with the weather and colleagues. The presentation was not in vain. We have received a request to join the “Sails”. However, it was not quite a young, but still a diplomat Marcelo Gandaria. He was inspired with the video and wrote down the date of the nearest expedition. It was time well-spent! Marcelo is extremely interesting to us! Firstly, this man is a constant live “expedition”! Secondly, he is indeed a diplomat; he worked at the US Embassy in Buenos Aires, in the cultural department. And the most important thing is that he can light up with the idea, with something new, and not only get inspired, but also take precise steps. So Marcelo is needed not so much at “Sails”, but also for all bored people on this planet.

So we are moving to Moscow, and in the memories – from Vermont through Chicago to San Francisco …

By the way, US planes sin by delays, as well as 20 years ago. Due to this we Artyom, Aysha from Oman and I missed a hockey match in Chicago. We flew in the third group and were late for nearly three hours. In order not to upset our friend from Oman, I showed her how to play hockey “myself”, of course with a fight.

The group got used to our humor. Bergur from Iceland, when his wheelchair was loaded at the end of the bus, often shouted from the gallery: “Oleg, tell us a Russian joke!” Zhou from China joked on this account: “What’ the difference between Russian and Icelandic jokes? Russian jokes are short and funny, while Icelandic ones are half-a-day long and not funny.”

Everyone in the group elegantly found their role and features. At the beginning of each meeting, everyone presented themselves in a circle, and when it was Rita’s turn, no one could restrain the delighted laughter following her words in a singsong voice: «Hello I’m Rita from Ghana!» And we got used to the elegant late arrivals of Dr. Ali from Tanzania. When pilaf was cooked in the room of Rano from Tajikistan, Dr. Ali was late for 24 hours, but noted the wonderful taste of a small hill of rice left after the party. At this party we wrote down a lot of tongue twisters in different languages. Of course, Zhou was the leader with his Chinese. I wonder what Zhou means in Chinese?

On the evening of the Chicago Tajik cuisine Bill Saint John, one of the American chaperons, showed himself. As he identified himself, a Yankee. Bill speaks Russian and Chinese, of course, he is well-read, and he served in the Navy US. He showed it that evening! Bill expertly took off the radio conversations of Chinese and Japanese pilots directly with the radio hiss. We were rolling on the floor laughing! Bill is a guy with a slight craziness, always very good, and with the indelible touch of altruism. He probably often thinks that he once again in vain suggested his support and services. No wonder – Bill, God sees these seemingly superfluous actions!

We started landing in vicinity of Moscow.

There is still some time to recall San Francisco. Just to remember the most important meeting of the entire program (I’m not the only one to think so, among the others Dr. Ali from Tanzania agreed with me). During our visit to the University of Berkeley, the first meeting was with Paul Hippolitus, specializing in students with disabilities. Next month Paul retires. He worked at Federal Ministry of Labor in Washington, DC, for 29 years, being responsible for employment of people with disabilities. For 10 years now he’s been working with students with disabilities at the University of California. Where to begin the story of our meeting with Paul? Well, probably, with honest and sober analysis of the work done, with well-deserved rest and something else waiting. So Paul said he has devoted all his life to employment of people with disabilities, and his service in the Federal Ministry has resulted in the number of unemployed persons with disabilities decreasing from about 30 to 20 percent.

When Paul first came to work at the University, he began asking students with disabilities the question: “What are you going to do after school?” The most common answer was: “I’m going to continue my education.” People with disabilities are even afraid to think about the real work. But Paul, he said, continued to redirect the attention of students and university administration solely towards where and how the graduates will work. Before the summer break he popularized the question: “Where are you going to work for you summer practice?”, instead of “Where are you going to spend your summer holidays?”

At the first meetings with his students with disabilities Paul, an absolutely healthy person, said and wrote on the blackboard: “Disability is normal,” After the first frustration Paul speaks openly and writes on the blackboard: “Disability is active!” And then he continues: “Disability is part of the diversity!” Let’s remember that diversity is one of the core values of the United States.

Before discussing the work, Paul advises his students to learn how to dress well and to remember that their professional skills at a job interview with employers are only seventh most common in the list of priorities. Prior to this are questions about their specific leadership experience in solving problems, communication skills, and team experience. It is difficult to describe confidence and, perhaps, joy in the words of Paul when he was sharing his experiences. He just felt the key and the most useful points. According to him, everyone just needs to focus on the future work, and the rest will follow.

At the beginning of the meeting Paul said that we should be aware that rehabilitation of the disabled and total activity of this social group, employment is likely to be the only true criterion of success. If my memory serves me, over the years with his students Paul has increased the employment rate up to more than 50 per cent, while the number of best students with disabilities at the University of California 1 percent to 11 percent. In addition, Paul holds an on-line course on the Internet and ready to consult professionals worldwide. That’s the real value, the real wealth!

When Paul was asked about the fight for the rights of disabled people he said that the rights concept of people with disabilities should go along with the concept of responsibility. It was hardly mentioned about the physical accessibility at the meeting.

This meeting has been a sharp contrast with all the other meetings in the United States with other non-profit organizations, government organizations and educational institutions. This one meeting was worth going to the States!

We’ll try to include our unique experience, unique knowledge and Paul’s motivation in our, so to say, common work on implementation of Extrability – special abilities of disabled people in particular economy of the near future.

What other interesting things have happened in the capital of “gold fever”? We visited the famous Broadway musical Wicked, made a boat trip through the bay passing under the Golden bridge and turning around the legendary island prison Alcatraz, in which Al Capone was imprisoned. Our hotel was located near Chinatown so those of us who prefer Chinese cuisine ate abundant food though of greatly varying quality. Some managed it but some stomachs “complained” strongly.

Together we visited the first US Center for availability of Edward Berkeley. It’s a beautiful, absolutely accessible building with its own subway station and parking that costs some 52 million USD. All disability groups receive services at the Center. I’d like to note its beauty and absolute absence of smell of the disabled which often appears in such places, and in very developed countries and cities. The tour was guided by a nice girl with feet prostheses that we didn’t notice at once. Inside is a long circled ramp. At the end of the tour Bergur rolled down on his wheelchair at the first cosmic speed eliciting our applause.

Now about the idea of the universal design that appeared in the Center. I should briefly explain to those who are not familiar with the term: universal design enters our life as a continuation of accessible environment. However, the main principle of universal design is that every change we make for a disabled group or another challenged group should be at least not harmful, and ideally useful to all other participants of social processes. Therefore, the Center staff passionately talked about the decisions made that knit together interests of the blind and wheelchair users, among the others how to find and implement compromises. However, it is very interesting and makes life easier for people with disabilities. The center is plausibly called The Accessible Life.

Besides I’d like to remind you of the basic design function. Let’s remember that comfort is not its main function. The main design feature is orientation of human mind, its work on the selected way. The most important and interesting in design is the parameters and shapes of external environment which set correct thinking towards human development. Proper design blows one’s mind in the right direction. After this impact, you can’t live the old way. You just start feeling the other way inside – more modern, fashionable, ready for accomplishments and victories.

Universal design is still biased towards comfort. People who create universal design “in their head” first send people with disabilities in a park, to the concert, to take leisure, maybe to do a little exercise, shopping, etc. And now let us remember Paul and his attitude towards employment of people with disabilities. Imagine a person with disability going to work, to school, trying to create, and not only for himself. What design should surround such a man? Comfort, of course, there should and must be – comfort and availability. When I managed to share opinions with Paul, already underway after the events, the question arose quickly: availability to what? It is really important! Design cannot exist for anything in the world at the same time. It should have the goal. Our goal is enablement of the greatest possible potential of people with disabilities, people with limitations, elderly people, children, women and other people whose strength is still deep underground as once the gold of California had been.

We had learned how to make and use gold. The potential of people with disabilities is a new challenge for thinking and active people around the world.

Here are the slogans. Apparently, by summing up the level of the remaining forces. At that time, the laptop battery ran down in the plane. After that, I just switched on Boris Grebenshchikov and put on my headphones. When the plane landed in the native “Koltsovo” Artem and I shook hands. Suddenly, I realized that we had been together for three weeks. Artem said that those three weeks had been as a good “Sails of Spirit”, referring to our expedition.

“Now we will try to make a trace of the American trip useful for all the sides of the ocean” – I am finishing the writing, sitting with my back to the window behind which there’s a washing house, spring grass and trees of Upper Sysert’. In 40 minutes, I am moving out to the city.

I would like to thank for their help in organizing the trip:

Sarah Saperstein, US vice consul in Yekaterinburg in culture, education and media

Julia Grigoryeva, Assistant of US Consul General in Yekaterinburg in Education and Culture

Sergey Loktionov, Officer of Professional Development Office Public Affairs Section, US Embassy in the Russian Federation

Special thanks

Tālis Bērziņš for taking great pictures during the program.

Tamara Agafonycheva for translating the text into English.

You can find out more about participants of the program by watching this video about tongue twisters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCR22QTFJdg

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