Sunday Oct 19, 2008

From Russia with Heart

This morning I received a letter from Mr. Harris Sussman who passed along to me the text of a talk that he and his wife Svetlana gave a few weeks ago to the Russian American Medical Association. It speaks to me on quite a few levels. I was so moved by it, I just wanted to share it with all of you (with permission from Mr. Sussman).

SVETLANA:

Good morning! My name is Svetlana Sussman. I am delighted to be here with you.

I am not a medical doctor, or a dentist, or a nurse. I earned a degree in chemistry but in the 90s you could make a better living teaching English than doing research in chemistry. I learned English at school, and it enabled me to meet many interesting people, among them my present husband Harris Sussman. When we first met, I thought he was a typical American; I can assure you he is not.

I was born in the Soviet Union and lived all my life (before meeting Harris) in St. Petersburg, arguably the most beautiful city on Earth. I was the only child of very loving parents.

My father Moisey Naumovich Adamov was born in 1920 in the midst of the Civil War and famine to a Jewish couple. His father was a violinist at the Mariinsky Theater. His mother was taking care of him. At the age of two as a result of complications from measles my father lost his sight. He never regained it. He went on to live his life in the Soviet Union going through the historic nightmares of Soviet history and was able to reach the top of academic and scholarly excellence.

Little Mosya attended the first four grades of the special institute for the blind established in the early days after the Russian revolution of 1917 and set up as a boarding school for blind kids, where he learned to read and write Braille and got some primary education. His parents did not want Mosya to be raised away from home so he transferred to a public school within walking distance of his home. He finished school at the top of his class supported by his classmates, parents and teachers. He continued to study at the physics department of the Leningrad State University (two years during World War II), started as a mathematics instructor at another university. After a post-graduate program equivalent to a modern PhD program he defended his candidate of science thesis, worked as a mathematics professor for many years until he defended his doctoral thesis and fully focused on theoretical research in quantum mechanics. He lectured special courses in quantum chemistry and continued theoretical research until he passed away in 2005. He published alone and with co-authors over 100 scientific papers in major refereed journals in Russia and abroad.

He loved reading and learned foreign languages and read fluently in English and German. He used to receive boxes with volumes from the US Library of Congress, the Royal Library in the UK, from Leipzig. He loved traveling. He never missed a conference in quantum chemistry held in the USSR. Very often we traveled together as a family – we went to Kaliningrad, Kishinev, Tbilisi, Estonia and Latvia, Samarkand.

My father loved swimming and an anecdote tells of him floating in the open sea while swimming off Odessa beach. With his graduate students he climbed the steep slopes of the Northern Caucusus Mountains in Pyatigorsk and Kislovodsk.

He was the bread winner in our family; he was my friend and confidant. He was truly interested in music, poetry, philosophy, and politics (listening to the BBC and Voice of America and radio station Liberty through the buzz of radio waves jamming.

I never thought of my father as an “invalid,” the official designation for people with any physical handicap in Russia. He was able and performing at the highest level of human achievement.

When he died nearing his 85th birthday, I started to realize what a vast void I have to fill not having him in my life. To honor his life, my husband and I decided to start a project to support talented blind people in Russia.

It started with my writing his brief biography aboard the plane on the way back from the funeral. When my plane landed, I had a plan in hand. We decided to tap into numerous connections my father had with people at the helm of the blind community, his old-time colleagues and friends. Very quickly this circle expanded and began to include talented teachers who dedicated their life educating blind children from kindergarten through university. I have become friends and stayed in touch over the Internet or phone visiting every time I have gone back to Russia.

When in the winter of 2005, I brought up my idea to start the MN Adamov Memorial Fund to honor my father’s memory and support people I met through him with the resources we had used to support my father, Harris enthusiastically agreed.

I start conversations by asking about people’s dreams. And then we see if in any way we can bring this dream closer. We learn of courage, perseverance and tremendous drive in people who are considered by official Russian pedagogy “defective.” Most blind students get their education at the Boarding School for the Blind. I have not met anyone who was able to attend a public school.

We receive as much as we give at every turn with every effort, with every step. I live inspired by the people we’re trying to help. This is a tremendous opportunity of making a difference and living an inspired life.

I have a full time job at MIT, so for Harris this project has become a learning experience about philanthropy in the US, Russian-American relations, politics and attitudes, and also meeting many blind. For Harris working on the project has been an important activity. It could not work without him.

HARRIS

Good day. I don’t have any slides: I’m used to talking to blind people. I am American but I know more blind people in St. Petersburg than doctors in America….

Three and a half years ago we started by asking what is life like for a blind person in Russia?--not good. The state of social services, educational services, medical services and economic support--in some respects it was worse than it was for my father-in-law.

So this was the problem--how could a blind person in Russia today have the same chance to succeed and have a superior quality of life that Moisey Naumovich had 80 years ago or 40 years ago or when I met him 15 years ago? Because as you know the situation had gotten worse in terms of social infrastructure, the legal system, economics, government policy, medical care and public awareness.

And then we had to ask, what is the best way for someone in America to help some blind people in Russia? Given the political situation in both countries, the cultural differences, the logistics challenge of the distance, at least 8 time zones away, (and the problem that I don't speak Russian)--and the absence of a culture of philanthropy in Russia, the official attitude of Russia against international assistance, the falling value of the dollar, the difficulty in finding allies and supporters and couriers and people to talk to about this...

Now we are at a critical point--we have been able to help a few people a lot and a few hundred people a little and maybe that is enough. You know there are different ways to improve someone's condition. You know that small simple things can really make a difference—things like trust and caring.

We have helped some people use their capabilities and advance in their lives—to study, to play music, to use a computer, to dance, to teach...

I was writing to one blind man in Russia about sending white canes and he said: No, they are not canes! They are magic wands! I said: I hope so--I have told people that they will help people to walk. He said: They change life style dramatically! Not just walk but increase self-confidence and self-respect!

So I had a fantasy of 11,000 visually impaired people moving down Nevsky Prospekt with their white canes so nobody in St. Petersburg could say they never saw a blind person.

Our wish is to have people living a fulfilling productive creative life...and by the way they are blind.

We are the only group in America dedicated to helping talented blind people in the former Soviet Union. This is a strange place to be in, in both countries. We are guided by the example of Svetlana's father and by our concern for the people we know and care about now.

We have no bureaucracy, no staff, no paperwork, no third-party payments. Our administrative overhead is our kitchen table. We are reliable—when we say we will do something we do it, after many international institutions and organizations made promises they didn’t keep; no wonder blind people were skeptical of us. Many of them still wonder why we do it when they don’t know anyone in Russia who will help them.

We ask ourselves how we can help people who are being ignored, neglected, treated badly, punished because they have a difficult physical condition. Who would understand what we are dealing with? That's why this is our first public appearance--we think you understand that we are walking a fine line. We know there is more we could do if we had some help.

Thank you.

http://mnadamovfund.org/

If you would like to contact Harris Sussman or the M. N. Adamov Memorial Fund, you may do so at harris at sussman dot org.

Wednesday May 21, 2008

Appeals court ruling: U.S. currency is discrimatory to the blind

On November 28, 2006, Judge James Robertson ruled in favor of the American Council of the Blind in the case "AMERICAN COUNCIL OF THE BLIND, et al., Plaintiffs, v. Henry M. Paulson, Jr., Secretary of the Treasury Defendant". Judge Robertson found that the inaccessibility of U.S. currency to the blind is a violation of Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act. Key language from Section 504 in this matter is:

No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States...shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or under any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency, or by the U.S. Postal Service.

Yesterday the D.C Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Judge Robertson's ruling. Writing for the majority opinion, Appeals court Judge Judith W. Rogers wrote (emphasis added):

The current design of paper money springs from the world of the sighted... Upon casual inspection anyone with good vision can readily discern the value of U.S. currency; yet even the most searching tactile examination will reveal no difference between a $100 bill and a $1 bill... Where the plaintiffs identify an obstacle that impedes their access to a government program or benefit, they likely have established that they lack meaningful access to the program or benefit... Where the basic task of independently evaluating the worth of currency in excess of 99 cents is difficult or impossible, the visually impaired are forever relegated to depend on 'the kindness of strangers' to shop for groceries, hire a taxi, or buy a newspaper or cup of coffee... The government might as well argue that there's no need to make buildings accessible to wheelchairs because handicapped people can crawl on all fours or ask passers-by for help.

See the Associated Press article Court says paper money biased against blind people and the New York Times article Blind Win Court Ruling on U.S. Currency. The folks at Our Money Too have a press release, and of course there is an American Council of the Blind press release.

From the Our Money Too release:

Furthermore, Judge Rogers noted that the Treasury Department's failure to produce currency that can be independently identified by blind and visually impaired Americans was an example of the very "thoughtlessness and indifference" that Congress sought to prevent when it subjected the federal government to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in federal government programs.

Saturday Feb 23, 2008

Videos of Orca use in India

I've just come across two YouTube videos talking about Orca use in India. The first video is an eight and a half minute collection of three Indian news reports about a seminar that Mr. Krishnakant Mane held for the blind in India late last year, using Orca and Ubuntu Linux. The second video - titled "True Vision" - is a 10 minute promotional piece by ELCOT (Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu Limited) in cooperation with the Government of Tamil Nadu, talking about their adoption and use of Ubuntu Linux and Orca to help the blind in India.

From the news video, there are two quotes of Krishnakant's that I particularly like:

The beauty of free software is that it is free to use. This is the reason I keep on saying that free as in freedom, not free of cost. You can always make even a business out of it, and we will have done it, and there is nothing wrong in it. But the software does not belong to me, or to you or to him. It belongs to all of us. It belongs to the entire community. And that is the reason it is called free or open source.

and

We are right now promoting free software use for free software actively amongst everyone, including the handicapped community, so that you get the complete benefit of reusing it on n number of machines you want. Modify it as per your requirements. Study it if you want to be a software engineer or a hobbyist. And most importantly, keep on helping others who need it, and you may charge for it of course.

Much of the "True Vision" promotional video, contains an interview with Krishnakant, answering a series of questions about what the blind can do in Linux with Orca. He notes that taskslike web browsing, e-mail, chatting, programming, authoring spreadsheets, and server administration are all quite possible for the blind. Krishnakant also compares open source access solutions to proprietary solutions in Windows. There is also a segment on the seminar that Krishnakant held for the blind (the subject of the first video), in which Krishnakant answers several questions from blind audience members about Orca's capabilities.

My favorite quote from this video comes at the end, from the narrator of the video:

It was we, the normally sighted people, who had been blind throughout, to the wonders of open source technologies on the Linux platform.

In both videos, you can see snippets of Orca with a variety of desktop applications, including with OpenOffice.org, the Firefox web browser, Pidgin chat, and of course the desktop.

Note: I will refrain from commenting on the start of the promotional video, other than to observe a comment that Willie Walker made in recent blog post: "Accessibility was always viewed as that once-in-a-while special interest segment you see on the nightly news -- sappy music playing in the background with the narrator using words such as "bravery," "overcoming hardships" and other content-free ilk meant to focus on the disability and tug at people's heartstrings."

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Peter Korn

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