In Siberia, Russia, I teach blind and low vision people how to use a computer, so they can continue with their education. We have many different educational challenges for people with disabilities in my country. I know this situation very well because I have been blind since birth. I studied in a boarding school, and earned two higher education degrees.
One day a year ago, my former English teacher told me about the Hubert H. Humphrey program, which combines mid-career professional development with non-degree graduate courses at U.S. universities. He suggested applying for this U.S. Department of State program and he offered to help with documents that were inaccessible (although I learned later I could have asked for these in accessible formats).
This program accepts 160 fellows each year from select countries, and while people with disabilities have not participated in large numbers in previous years, they are welcomed and encouraged to apply.
To apply for the Humphrey program, I had to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam. At first, staff in the Novosibirsk office that administers the exam said that I couldn’t take this test because I am blind. Upon learning that the service who writes the exam is required to make disability accommodations, the Novosibirsk staff offered the TOEFL in an audible format. I didn’t have enough time to request braille accommodations, so I agreed; but it was very difficult for me because I always understand better when I can read texts in braille with my fingers. It works like a visual memory.
I did not hear anything about the program after the TOEFL exam, and I was sure that I didn’t pass. But then, I got a call from U.S. Embassy at the beginning of March. They said that I had three weeks left in Russia. Only three weeks to prepare everything!
In those three weeks, I had to submit medical forms for my U.S. fellowship. Some Russian doctors refused to sign my documents just because I am blind; others refused to do it because the documents were in English and they only understood Russian. But I eventually found a doctor to complete the forms and I traveled to the United States.
I saw a big contrast when I arrived in Eugene, Oregon, USA to attend the American English Institute (AEI) with some other Humphrey fellows from around the world.
Since I use a white cane to travel independently, on the day after my arrival an orientation and mobility trainer helped me become familiar with the campus. Also, the adaptive technology lab on campus loaned me a larger braille display, which is equipment that takes text from a computer screen and displays it with mechanically raised dots to represent the braille codes. The disability services office at the University of Oregon, where AEI is located, connected me with all these services.
In Russia, we only have about ten universities where we have similar disability services offices, which is like a drop in the ocean. These Russian centers don’t have state funding, and the staff has many other responsibilities besides disability support.
Sometimes I think that Eugene is my utopia. I have all conditions needed for me to focus on my studying and to get around campus comfortably.
I can go to all my classes by myself; all of my class materials have been converted into an accessible format; and I have met many friendly and helpful people. I know that many, difficult challenges are waiting for me back in my country – but now I’m just an English student and I’m very happy here! I really appreciate all the university’s work to help me resolve various issues with accessibility, but they have been small problems compared with barriers for people with disabilities in Russia.
After my few months of English courses, I am going to Pennsylvania State University to take graduate level courses and participate in the professional development aspects of the Humphrey program. I will have nine months to learn about the U.S. system of education for people with disabilities, and then I’ll try to use this knowledge to improve education in my country. I know that it will be difficult, but I believe in success. And I believe in my abilities, in my hard work ethic and in my stubbornness in achieving my goals.
I wish more people with disabilities had faith in themselves to join me in changing the world, or at least a little part of this world. Svetlana is Assistive Technology and Braille specialist at Novosibirsk Special Library for the Blind and Visually Impaired.