Your dream guide: web-portal of tourism in Sochi for travelers with disabilities

Audio description: photo in color. Southern landscape: flourishing bushes, sycamores, pyramidal poplars. Some 10 people dressed in spring-and-autumn clothes are standing in a line along the cobblestone alley. The line is headed by the middle-aged woman wearing dark glasses. Other members of the group have dark bandages on their eyes. Two travelers in wheelchairs are bringing up the rear.

Do you love visiting new cities and countries? A strange question though, as everybody love to travel. But beautiful landscapes and various places of interest are not the only thing that many travelers value — comfort and quality services matter a lot too. For a traveler with disabilities there is another critical aspect — the objects’ accessibility.

In Russia the adapted and inclusive tourism is developing quite fast. Mostly it is happening because of the growing demand from the people with disabilities, grant support from the Government and big charity foundations and as well due to the desire of the NPO (non-profit organization) to aid the above-mentioned social group. Just a couple of years ago the accessible tours for people with disabilities (including visually impaired members) were uncommon, while today there are more than a dozen of them available — from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka. More and more accessible routes appear, museums and exhibitions get adapted and the aggregator service for inclusive tours search keeps working.

Photo: excursion in Science&Art Park “Sirius”.

Audio description: photo in color. There are four women in a bright room with high yellow racks with houseplants. Three of them are standing and the other one is sitting in her wheelchair. They are wearing dark trousers, grey shirts, grey jackets, and sweatshirts, grey as well. One lady in black glasses holds a small ceramic pot, with succulent inside, same plant is seen in the hands of the woman sitting.

There is another project, which is being developed currently in Sochi, that helps people with disabilities feel themselves comfortable while visiting adapted excursions around the city. It was named “Dream Guide”. Vladimir Vaskevich, the reporter of the “Special View” web-portal, talked to the leader of the project — Maria Guseva.

How it started

Maria Guseva is a psychologist and for few years worked in rehabilitation center for children with disabilities in Bashkortostan. She instantly realized that any rehabilitation, even if it is a drug treatment, is more efficient when the children get positive emotions. Maria proposed to organize a family club based on the rehabilitation center, where kids and their parents would be able to do something together: participate in creative masterclasses, play board games, come up with various quizzes. However, the idea didn’t find any support, mentioning lack of money as the reason.

“I remember I felt bitter that moment, but I wouldn’t bow out. Some parents supported me, and I established my own NPO, and we started with organizing tourist camps for children with disabilities and their parents, since travels, excursions, discoveries and impressions are the things that stay longer and shine brighter in memory and give millions of happy feelings”, Maria told.

The first camp was organized in Bashkiria. They managed to present the idea to public, and Maria found a way to address the members of the comedy show “Uralskie pelmeni”.

“The first shift took place in 2013, and we were very lucky to have the ‘Uralskie pelmeni’ comedians supporting us there — they even became our counselors for one full shift. Kids with visual impairments, with disabilities, with cerebral palsy or down syndrome got their unique opportunity to unwind and take part in various creative activities with celebrities”, Maria shared.

The concept of the camp was loved so much by the participants and organizers, that the very following year the project applied for the President’s grant — and won. Little travelers and their parents went to Anapa to stay by the sea.

Accessibility is not for everyone

Photo: sightseeing route “Sea — the Olympic heritage”.

Audio description: photo in color. Sochi. Bright cloudless day. A girl with long dark hair, wearing light yellow windbreaker, is standing in the square of the Olympic Park with her arms wide open. We can see the “Fisht” stadium behind her, composed of two white semi-spheres, and the Olympic torch of about 50 meter height.

In 2014 we got several camp shifts in Anapa, with more than 100 participants from five regions of Russia. But the grant came to an end and the project needed to search for financial help again.

“My friends, who just flew back from Sochi, told me, that there were a lot of hotel rooms left empty after the Olympics had finished. So I decided to try to persuade the hotel owners to support our camp and provide us with either free accommodation or a significant discount on booking. We were lucky to find a hotel located at the Imereti resort, which offered free accommodation to kids and adults with disabilities, and only those who accompanied such travelers had to pay for their stay”, Maria explained.

Led by Maria, the organization quickly engaged into development of a new program named “Social&Integrative shifts”, which appeared to be a camp for children and a tour for adults at the same time. “We made them come together, and we managed to have 33 tours per year in our best shifts. To organize a shift, you need to not only find a hotel, but as well develop adapted trips, find buses equipped with ramps, build an engaging entertainment program for people with disabilities. As time passed, by trial and error we set up a number of programs, equally available for people with different types of disabilities”, Maria Guseva added.

According to her, Sochi provides lots of opportunities for traveler, including travelers with disabilities., though the biggest issue was finding the proper transport. All the available buses with ramps were under control of the local Social Policy Committee, and the officials reported that those buses were intended for local citizens only.

“This meant, that the tourists with disabilities, visiting the resort, didn’t have the right to use the accessible city environment, which stayed after the Olympics. This was nonsense, and we couldn’t neither understand this, nor accept. Besides, the reality was that our adapted tours were available only for the participants of our camps — and that was a problem. If a person with disabilities comes to the resort on his/her own, he/she will not see all this. This was when we came up with an idea to create a project ‘Dream Guide’, which would tell tourists with disabilities about Sochi and its accessible excursions, hotels, beaches, parks and entertainment”, Maria said.

Your dream guide

There was already the basement for such a web-site — dozens of shifts and trips, organized by Maria and her NPO, helped to structure the routes and describe them thoroughly, keeping in mind the different needs of the special travelers.

“This year we managed to win again the President’s grant, and we were very inspired to continue our work. Alongside with writing the routes descriptions, my colleagues and I organized trainings for volunteers and employees of museums, parks and entertainment centers to teach them to interact with tourists with special needs. Together with the volunteers, we went on each route for several times, to see if a wheelchair could pass here or there, or if an additional Braille sign needed to be placed. Moreover, the local guys and girls with disabilities, living in Sochi, helped us with great enthusiasm and became our experts”, Maria told.

She says that it was a real pleasure seeing the interest and commitment of the heads of museums and other tourist attractions to organize accessible excursions — it turned out that they simply had no idea where to start and who to approach for advice.

“Thus, we managed to help each other and through this work we got four totally accessible full-day routs. Two of them cover Olympic heritage — sea and mountains, then the Sochi center and the nature of Khosta”, Maria tells.

The “Dream Guide” web-portal hosts full information about accessible routes. Besides, there the tourist can look for museums’ working hours and learn the nuances of accessible service provided, if the place is equipped with toilets, as well as the ticket price and any discounts available for tourists with disabilities. Everyone coming to Sochi for vacation can contribute to the development of the inclusive tourism — they can leave feedback (photo or video) about any place of interest, beach or hotel accommodation. If will help the tourists who plan to come to the resort in the future.

Personal experience: legendary cars and Medieval technologies

Photo: tour of “Sea — the Olympic heritage”, Nik Panuli’s Car Museum.

Audio description: photo in color. Well-lit spacious room of the Car Museum. Two visitors, a guy and a girl, wearing light clothes, are studying one of the exhibits by touching it with their hands. This is an American fire truck of the beginning of the 20thcentury. The red truck is open, it is equipped with big round headlamps, high radiator grill and chrome horn. The guy and the girl are smiling, their sight is defocused.

I went to Sochi and tested few objects. I choose Olympic Park for the weekend trip, and there I visited the Museum of Sports&Racing cars and the exhibition in Leonardo da Vinci Museum. I studied in advance all the variants of accessible tours on the “Dream Guide” web-site and learnt that the visitors with category I disability could get the museum tickets for free.

I believe, the biggest issue for the tourists with visual impairments is that you are prohibited to touch the majority of the museum’s exhibits. In case the museum’s employees do have the understanding how to interact with blind visitors, they can let us touch some of the objects. In the Museum of Racing cars I managed to study thoroughly the Hummer and took some photos sitting at the cabriolet’s wheel. Nothing similar is allowed for any common tourist, thus this is a unique opportunity for the people with visual impairments to touch the high-speed cars.

Leonardo da Vinci Museum welcomes every visitor to watch, touch and test the inventions of the genius master. The purpose of most of the devices are impossible to identify by touching, but when you learn, how they operate, you can guess why they were created. I managed to “see” with hands the prototype of the Medieval mincer and the theatre spotlight, the tools to measure humidity, wind power and pressure, and to learn how the catapults and other weapons work.

“Apart from organizing the accessible excursions in the museums, we aim to make architecture same accessible for the visually impaired people, and this is when 3d modeling can help. Thanks to our partners from ‘Talent and Success’ foundation, we managed to create portable tactile models of main Olympic objects. Now every visually impaired visitor walking in the Olympic Park may study the miniatures of the ‘Fisht’ stadium, the big ice arena, the ‘Iceberg’ palace, the Olympic cup which had the Olympic fire inside, as well as many other objects. Since the models are portable and lightweight, we invite the visitors to study them right here, while walking, when approaching this or that point of our route”, Maria told me during the excursion.

Today, the tourists with any type of disability can book an inclusive camp or tour or come to Sochi on their own, with the help of the web-portal.

“Besides the accessible routes, we collected all the necessary information on the hotels of the Imereti lowland, accessible cafes, as well as feedbacks from the tourists with disabilities who have been here before. I, my colleagues, volunteers, including those having any kind of disabilities, are open to advise or even provide a free excursion”, Maria shared.

More than 50 tourists with disabilities have already enjoyed such opportunity, including travelers with visual impairments. Vitaly Sachko from Pskov was one of them. He says: “Together with Masha and the social worker we visited unique Caucasian nature reserve, which hosts the rehabilitation center for wild animals having gone through trouble. It was very interesting to learn how the center works, what animals stay there and how they all ended up there. Later we went to Krasnaya Polyana, took the cable car and went up to 2200 meters. For my very first time in my life I saw snow in July, although I know for sure that in mountains it stays any time of the year. Still, it was very unusual”.

What’s next? Maria Guseva and her colleagues plan to continue developing new routes and to make the Sochi beaches more accessible for the people with visual impairment.

“Beaches accessibility is still a problem. Even the beaches marked with blue flags are not always adapted for tourists with special needs. We plan to seriously address this issue and develop a tactile guide system for visually impaired visitors, as well as install flatter and more convenient sea entries for the tourists in wheelchairs. For now, we managed to ensure that a lot of Sochi beaches would provide a tourist with disabilities with a free lawn chair, but there is still a lot to do”, Maria Guseva told.