Traveller's Notebook #2

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

10,000 m Above Ground

We are going on at an altitude of 10,000 m, flight Chicago – San Francisco. I connected to the Internet in board the plane. Communication is excellent. I heard the voice of Eugenia Malyshko from Moscow and congratulated her on Cosmonautics Day.

Chicago let us go reluctantly, the bus broke down on the way to the airport, but it turned out perfectly. We were on time, we loaded on and flew. Artyom and I sat in the first row behind business class, so all the crew passing by were able to wish us a good flight touching my shoulder.

Back to the beginning of our tour to Washington, I would like to recall the first meeting of the whole group and the introductory lecture of a Lebanese American named Akram. Let me remind you that a trip was organized by the US State Department, and the first introductory lecture just touched the structure of the US as a country: political system, principles, etc. Akram’s speech was more than emotional, one could feel he’s a professional. He moved his head as a professional gunner, not forgetting to check whether he hit the target with the phrase «Are you with me?»

What was surprising for me? The basic principle of American political system is individualism. Akram said that the word can’t be well perceived in most other cultures, but the Americans really believe in it and realize it. Individualism builds American democracy.

Maybe I listened or read inattentively about American democracy, but it was for the first time I noticed the American individualism.

Of course, in Russia such a democracy will never work in principle. We talk about democratic principles, but never mention individualism, that is, we build democracy without its base. Simply it varies from our mentality and geographical reality that’s the base of the mentality. It seems individualism will not work without democracy. So, love it or hate it, we need to create our own political system with clear and comprehensible manner. For me, it became as clear as day.

Of course, in Russia such a democracy will never work in principle. We talk about democratic principles, but never mention individualism, that is, we build democracy without its base.

Washington, spring, cherry blossom… The whole city is in white petals like in the winter. People picnic on the lawns of the city. We live at the Hilton, just a couple of kilometers away from the White House. It’s in Dupont circle, all cafes there have iridescent flags, which means we are in the minority community where “poor” heterosexuals are also the minority. That’s funny!

In the first days we got to know US non-profit organizations fighting for the rights of disabled people, from Rehabilitation act adopted in the 1970s till the Americans with Disability Act adopted in the 1990s. We met Judith Heumann, Obama’s Special advisor for disability rights and watched a movie about how disability rights were given. People took to the streets, blocked traffic, lied on the roads and building staircases and lobbied congressmen and presidents. On the one hand, it inspires respect. On the other hand, a one-hour movie about the struggle that we saw in the State Department not in the least correlates with positive creation together with people with disabilities that was our dream when creating the movement White Cane.

Of course, it’s a controversial question, but a constant struggle and fight for the rights is unlikely provide that society wants to communicate with a person with severe disability. How can one show their usefulness and the desire to cooperate through their aggression? Sometimes it is difficult to do for those who are accustomed to war.

But let’s leave it to Heaven.

However, people with disabilities in America who tried all these bills and acts, have more than enough perseverance and faith in the usefulness of their cause. After that they started to act, people in wheelchairs and with canes began to appear on the streets, in cultural and sports facilities.

It is up to us how we will use it in the future, including our international inclusive leadership group of IVLP exchange programs. The day before yesterday we cooked and ate pilaf together in one room, and in Washington, we adapted to one another, got to know each other, and watched. We ate lunch and tried to walk together, the weather was perfect. Many of us visited Washington museums and exhibitions. When Artyom returned from such a tour, his voice was that of a man who visited a fairy tale in the future.Together we visited memorials and monuments. I remember Franklin Roosevelt Memorial. I have long been fond of this man in a wheelchair. So far the majority of his deeds is hidden from me in the unread books. I’m looking forward to…

After all, only he or such a person could prepare and even catalyze passing through the global crisis. One of the memorial parts is dedicated to the US depression before the war. Imagine me, a Russian, and the guide telling us that the monument depicts the queue for bread during the Depression. It’s easy to guess what Russian people can feel at such moments.

I somehow feel that people with disabilities are extremely useful in such times, taking responsibility for the environment. Only they know that their own fear is the most hideous thing. I think these are Roosevelt’s words. Behind his figure a long quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt, his wife, is written on the monument. I have identified the first part:

«Franklin’s illness gave him strength and courage he hadn’t have before».

— Eleonora Roosevelt

That is: description of the function of a person with disability. That’s how dignity is acquired, which is mentioned in many parts of our favorite UN Convention on the rights of Russian and foreign disabled people.

We want to see more of our people with disabilities struggling and working to ensure that the power given by disability is not wasted and serves for the benefit of society. Sounds a bit pathetic after I repeated it in my mind, but I have neither the desire nor sense to live in a different way.

We challenged people have sense, rather, most likely senses. We need to grasp and implement them. We will learn perseverance and openness to work, to business, to the challenges from the Americans.

Here we surely need to remember the trip to the headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in Baltimore, which we passionately aimed at when planning programs with the US Embassy. It was quite a tough nut to crack. I’d like to share as many emotions as possible from meeting these people.

Briefly, how we got to know this organization.

Our French colleague, Vice-President of Association Valentin Haüy Marc Aufrant invited us to a conference of Daisy Consortium in Paris last June. Mark introduced Artyom and me to the international establishment in the field of work with the blind people. He also introduced us to James Gashel, vice-president of the NFB. A couple of sentences at the conference, a one-hour conversation over dinner at the legendary cafe Le Dome – and James and I mutually felt that in some things we can definitely stick together. I am writing about my feelings. I can boast that I can feel “one of us”. James is one of us, though certainly it’s not very good say that about a very respectable person, with rich experience and undisguised dignity. But I still take the bold and see James “one of us”.

That is how we managed to organize a trip of our group from Washington, where we had an excursion to the Pentagon, to Baltimore, where we, or rather I got amazing surprises.

By the way, the Pentagon was the first to surprise that day. The most memorable was that the guides (first a guy and then a girl) shouted numerous facts about the building, the organization etc, in a loud and commanding voice. Funny enough, they did it at a fairly rapid pace facing the group. That is, they went backwards through the Pentagon.

Artyom and I moved to the NFB headquarters before the group at lunch. Looks like a heroism: we gave up lunch for an important meeting. In our times of consumption it’s almost a feat.

When looking for a taxi in Baltimore, we quickly caught a puff of cannabis – apparently one of the signs of a provincial town.

The first floor of the Federation of the Blind was empty, so we found the elevator and started rising. The elevator stopped on his way up, and a man with a cane came in. We were a bit late. The elevator doors closed, we started rising, when the man asked, “Are you Oleg?”. The man appeared to be Dr. Maurer, a person who had an appointment with us.

Again I have a pause, moving out of the plane to the Hilton, San Francisco. Of course, it’s extremely difficult to work in multiple time zones at once, and I want to manage everywhere. The difference with the house is now 12 hours, with Kazan (we’re having a talk tomorrow morning) – 10 hours, then I’ve just sent a message to Israel, with their differences of 9 hours on Sunday, another connection to Chita with the difference of 15 hours. In the evening we are to go to a musical, and I still have to finish writing about Washington. Thank God, I can drink coffee within half an hour before the arrival of the great Artyom to go on with NFB.

Dr. Maurer, according to Artyom, is a typical Anglo-Saxon. I have never seen so much dignity in behavior and style not only in a blind man, but also in one who can see. When he says, you want to listen and obey. Dr. Maurer was the Head of NFB from 1986 to 2014, the largest US organization of the blind. As one Englishman put it right at Paris conference last year, the Americans have done for the blind more than the rest of the world together.

It’s also important to note that for the first time in my life I was really in the society of blind people. Almost everyone we met that day at Baltimore headquarters were blind and not just blind, but with canes. Administration staff, managers and the shop assistant. Almost all of them.

When Dr. Maurer clearly and directly asked what they can do to help and what they should do for us, I was confused, to be honest. The doctor spoke in a voice that showed me he was really going to do his best in the development of our relations. It is the American feature: the willingness to act without postponement. Time is money – so money is one of the main tools. It is really so.

I was confused, but pulled together and started inviting our American colleagues to the Congress in Russia in 2017 and to the round tables. I invited Dr. Maurer to join us in an inclusive regatta of NFB representatives. Dr. Maurer answered with the described dignity but simply that he’d be delighted to take part in the expedition. I adore to learn from these people!

This is really cool! I can’t help switching to slang. Almost all young and not only young blind people from NFB were extremely simple, decent and open.

Our leadership group arrived in the afternoon. We gathered in the conference hall. Dr. Maurer greeted and left us with two blind leaders. They told about the projects and activity. There were questions from the group. One of the answers finally convinced me that NFB has its own ideology. Moreover, it is intertwined with the ideas that our young organization is trying to spread. Thalis from Latvia asked about the accessible environment and tactile “signs” in the streets and in the subway. American colleagues answered that, indeed, they are trying to make these “signs”, but the main thing is not a “sign”. The main thing that a blind man with a cane be so self-sufficient that he would be able to find his way where there is no “sign” , with the same ease and convenience. The main thing that a blind person how less dependent on external factors as possible. Unlike my categorical judgments that these “signs are unnecessary for those who walk blindly, the colleagues gently explained that we all have to respect those who are starting to walk with a cane, and those who can and want to use this device. They are live, one might say moving «Extrability from NFB».

At parting, we got to test the new Russian version of KNFB reader – a program that allows you to read documents, photographing them from your smartphone. The program was installed on the latest smartphone model and packed in a box tied with a ribbon. There was a movie called “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.”

What else do I want to remember about Washington before Artyom knocking on the door for breakfast? We have visited almost all political sights and museums, I was able to walk to the cafe and back with Sumbul, a blind teacher from Pakistan. At parting, we managed to spend two unforgettable hours with Father Georgy in the cafeteria at an amazing conversation. In Washington, despite its capital air, great people and not very tasty tap water, in contrast to the Vermont and San Francisco. Just I drank a glass and getting ready for a new day.

Hopefully I will go on to Vermont, Chicago, San Francisco, and our group tomorrow.

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 to Mr. Tālis Bērziņš for taking great pictures during the program and to 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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