One Librarian's Vision for the Blind

RYAZAN, Central Russia -- Even though Vera Zhakenova is blind, she has a clear vision of the future for visually impaired children.

Zhakenova, director of the Ryazan Library for the Blind, has been fighting with the authorities for the past 20 years to open a school for the visually impaired.

"It's been very hard to accomplish anything [today]," said Zhakenova, who said blind children have less access to education these days. "The government doesn't want to help."

In the meantime, she is working on a dream project to create a community garden, a special place on the grounds of the library where blind children can take walks through a garden filled with the scents of aromatic plants and sounds from fountains. Children will be able to feel the fuzzy leaves on the plants or hear the wind rustle through the branches, the chirping of birds or the crackle of frost in the morning when the sun rises.

A small area will be designated as a workshop where children can shape clay and there will be an outdoor oven for firing ceramics. Children can mold clay models and sculptures and make pots on a pottery wheel.

"Vera wanted a place where the children could rest in the open air because they're indoors all the time," said Jennifer O'Shea, a Peace Corps volunteer who is helping design the garden with a local landscape architect, sculptor and horticulturist.

Their project, entitled Visions of Paradise, could go a long way toward raising awareness of the difficult plight of blind people in Russia.

The Soviet state once provided support for the blind in the form of work, education and housing. A large factory, once affiliated with the All-Russian Association of the Blind, employed over 400 visually disabled individuals in Ryazan, a city located four hours south of Moscow.

In front of the factory is a traffic signal which makes a chirping sound for the blind to cross the street. The workers made transistors for radios, televisions and tape recorders and lived in a dormitory. Many were educated at boarding schools around the oblast.

But like most state enterprises, production at the Ryazan factory has practically come to a standstill and so have the lives of the visually impaired people it once helped.

Education has become an acute problem today for families with visually impaired children. In the past, these children had the opportunity to attend special boarding schools where people like Zhakenova studied. There they could learn to read and write in Braille and socialize with other children.

But the majority of these schools have been closed down, and the ones that remain are usually too far away for families to send their children. In Ryazan, there is only one school for visually impaired children, and they can attend only for only three years.

Most blind people here cannot read Braille because they were never taught to do so. In Ryazan oblast there are 3,500 visually impaired people.

"There is a large population of uneducated blind people who can't get jobs," said O'Shea. "There is a stigma attached to being blind. People are always shocked when they hear Vera's blind."

Zhakenova has been leading the charge here to educate the blind and make their lives better. Her library serves readers on a daily basis, loaning out books and tapes and mailing parcels to those living outside the city. Because the majority cannot read Braille and the books are too expensive to replace, most order tapes through the mail. But many of the existing tapes are aging, and there is little funding to replace them.

Zhakenova also organizes extracurricular activities for the city's visually impaired children, including special groups that work with clay, paint pictures and participate in a variety of craft activities.

Four times a year, during holidays, she organizes parties at the library where children can meet and socialize.

But Zhakenova continues to fight the city government for support.

"What is most difficult is the government's misunderstanding of the needs of the blind," she said. "Sometimes if a government official loses his sight and comes to the library and sees nothing, he then asks why nothing has been done."

Those who would like to help sponsor the garden project can contact Jennifer O'Shea at the Peace Corps headquarters in Moscow at 290-2444.