Entering a university is not a simple task. While choosing one's future career, an applicant with visual impairments should consider the inclusion of the job and prospects of employment. Russia has educational institutions with vast experience of training visually challenged students. Yelena Fedoseyeva, Special View's correspondent, gives an account of one of them, The Russian State Specialized Academy of Arts, that has been educating musicians, artists and theatre actors with special needs for thirteen years.
Audio description: a coloured photo. A bright summer day. Entrance lobby of a red-bricked building. Its façade partly protrudes forming a portico with circular columns. A plate above them reads: The Russian State Specialized Academy of Arts. Yellow tactile paving is laid in front of the entrance. A bicycle is parked at an enclosed lot to the left of the entrance.
Inclusion In Reverse
The Russian State Specialized Academy of Arts is a truly inclusive institution. Educational groups comprise both students with no special needs and those having impaired hearing, sight or locomotor system. Education programs are identical for all the students, but to help them take the material in, each of them has special technical facilities selected for them individually. For example, visually impaired students use audio recording devices during lectures, Braille script aids, and computers with screen reader programs installed on them.
The Academy provides the accessible environment, but in Yulia Antonova's opinion, at the same time there exist certain difficulties. Firstly, music sheets in Braille script are not easy to obtain; such sheets are published rarely, and those that students actually need are rarer still. At the Academy, this problem is partly solved thanks to special computer programs and Braille printers. Secondly, it is the size of the books printed in raised dots. No university library can find room for a large selection of such editions.
The accessible environment at the Academy is also created thanks to social workers on its staff. Many sightless first-year students face a whole range of difficulties, especially those that move to Moscow from elsewhere. They must learn to find their way in a new building, remember the route from the Academy to the dormitory and the shops that they need. This is why the Academy employs a special tutor who is always ready to give them a hand.
"Our tutor is sightless, too, it is our graduate, Yelena Kukharenko. When we chose her for the job, we were having doubts whether she, being sightless herself, would be able to help students with visual impairments, but as it turns out, we didn't have to worry. Yelena knows what that first-year students with visual impairments need and the proper ways to instruct them. She leads them from one classroom to another, helps them to get acquainted with the surroundings and the way the Academy is organized, explains how to find a certain auditorium, or a place where one can study individually", Yulia Antonova explains.
A Conscious Decision
Entering a university, a sightless person makes a conscious decision. Often one chooses a creative occupation well before applying, sometimes at quite a young age. A child starts playing music and shows good abilities, ] enters a music school for children, then a music college, and after that a university. As a rule, RSSAA sticks to this traditional system, although secondary music education is not obligatory for a person to get admission. It is the knowledge that counts.
For example, a person studied at a children's music school, then entered a music college but never graduated, maybe even never finished a children's music school program, but at the same time he or she may be naturally gifted and highly motivated to get professional education. In such case, professors may recommend the prospective student to take preparatory courses at the Academy.
For graduates of any art academy, further employment depends on many factors, on talent and diligence, perseverance and a wish to show one's full potential. However, 90% of RSSAA Music Faculty graduates successfully find employment.
"As I see it, his is due to the fact that a person with disabilities invests a lot of emotional and physical energy in order to get an education in art. Although a career in music may seem easy, in truth it is hard work, especially for a sightless person. And when a student has spent so much emotional and physical effort in order to get professional training, he or she will do everything for this effort not to go to waste", Yulia Antonova says.
Fully or partially sightless Academy graduates become members of orchestra and other types of music bands, teachers in music schools and schools for people with special needs. Some of them choose the scene and perform on tours, some consult beginner musicians.
Audio description: a coloured photo. Against dark background, there shows a part of a brown violin, the curve of a top plate with strings and the F-hole.
Sightless graduates from RSSAA Music Faculty tell about their experience of studying and getting a job.
Yelena Kukharenko, Yegoryevsk (Moscow Region)
"I first learned about RSSAA when I was studying at Kursk Music College. For me the Academy was so attractive because it could give me the opportunity to go on with my musical education and also because it was so inclusive. That is why after graduating from the music college, it was the Academy I decided to enter.
I got admission to the Music Faculty and joined the class headed by a wonderful teacher, Yulia Antonova. She is a superb specialist and a very kindly person, she helped me a lot not only in my studies, but in my life, too. Moreover, the Academy was where I continued my socialization.
I had moved to Kursk at 17, and from that moment I began living on my own, with no help from sighted relatives. In Moscow I got accommodated at a dormitory for students, which is five minutes' walk from the Academy. We were living side by side with sighted students from another university, so we had to communicate, find ways to cooperate.
Plus, on the way from the dormitory to the Academy I regularly met new people who came up to me and asked whether I needed help. Furthermore, the very life of the students of art, noisy and merry, helps even the shyest person with his or her socialization.
Every so often we went to concerts and plays, took part in Academy events, went to other cities and even countries to participate in contests. And the most important gathering point for students and teachers was, of course, the canteen. We have this saying at the Academy: ‘If a student is absent, look for him at the canteen. If a professor is absent, look for him there, too’.
What gave me more independence and self-reliance, was my tutoring practice, which I started in Kursk and developed in Moscow. Some of my students were not ready to come to me for the lessons, so I often had to go to their place, learn new routes, use different types of transport.
What is more, after graduating from the Academy, I worked as a guide for the Walks In The Dark project. I took a job there because I wanted to learn to approach different people, be always lively and interesting, develop my public speech skills. While working there, I finally reached a firm decision to get a degree in psychology, so I entered a psychology college. And later I came back to the Academy, but this time as a tutor helping other sightless students perform a wide range of tasks: learn the route from the Academy to the dormitory, get the hang of music sheets in Braille script, understand and learn theory given at lectures.
But at the moment I am at parental leave, so currently I am not working as a tutor at the Academy. I go on giving lessons at home, though. Some of my students come to me, with others we get in touch online via any media convenient for them. I also have a YouTube channel, where I share my knowledge in music theory and show the ways to pick out a popular tune or make a nice version of it".
Alexandra Skorobogatova, Balakovo (Saratov Region)
"I think I went to Moscow to apply to the Academy mostly because many of my friends got admitted there. I love music, but studying was hard. Every year I hoped to come to like all this educational process, but in the end during my fourth year I gave up and dropped out — at first for a year, and then for good. I wanted to sort myself out and make the final decision, whether to go on studying at the Academy or transfer to another university. But these options soon became irrelevant, because during my sabbatical I met my husband-to-be and stayed in my hometown for him. Soon we got married, our son was born, so now my main job is being a mommy.
Of course, the four years I spent at the Academy were not in vain. I became more self-reliant, confident, perfected my skills at using a white cane, and acquired knowledge in the job I had chosen. Moreover, I took several optional courses that helped me even more than the training in music.
After this pause in my music studies I went back to what I love most – to unhindered creativity, which gives me much satisfaction. Sometimes I work as a freelance composer or do sound records. I do it for our local branch of All Russia Association of the Blind, so I don't take big sums for my work.
Also I try to actively help the development of local amateur performances. I organized and am currently heading a small music band. Of course, I also play solo, in order not to lose my skills and technique. Sometimes I give individual lessons, and try to teach music theory to children so that they understand that music is something more than four basic chords".
Ivan Cherenev, Moscow
"I wanted to study at an audio engineering faculty, and it wasn't important to me at which university. I was allowing both possibilities, as of studying at a university for people with special needs, so of going to any other one. But when I contacted universities to get extra information, they always asked me: ‘Being a sightless person, how are you going to study to become a soundman? What for? Why?’
At some universities I was told that they had no programs for training persons with disabilities, at others they explained that soundman is a job which is not adaptable for visually impaired people. Now I can easily prove these statements wrong, but at that time I had nothing to contradict them with. So I thought it would be easier for me to get professional training at a specialized university where teachers understand all the nuances of working with sightless students. That is why I chose the Academy, because its title said ‘specialized’. Although at first I didn't want to give much attention to this word, it was the very thing I needed at that time.
A specialized university is a community of young physically impaired people who are ready to help and support one another. They can give you tips where to find materials for your studies, sort out everyday inconveniences. That is what helps a sightless person with his or her socialization. As for my own socialization, it began at Kursk music college, but I didn't become fully independent there. While in Kursk, I had problems with self-acceptance: I was too embarrassed to walk with a white cane, so I used other accessories for the visually challenged.
At the Academy, I pretty soon came to realize that using a white cane means freedom I had never had. When I understood that, I got down to learning to use it cane while moving about. And when the Internet became more or less available, I started to explore computer technologies, including those that help sightless people to find their way around without assistance.
Moreover, it was important for me to learn to communicate, because since adolescence I had big problems with that. I began to tackle them at college, but mostly I did it at the Academy. I was surrounded by people with the same physical limitations I had, I could communicate with them and learn from their experience.
At the Academy there also were students with no physical impairments, so I had to communicate with them, too. Before that I had thought that sighted persons had better chances of getting a profession, that they were far better than the visually challenged, but at the Academy, thanks to the experience of dealing with students with no disabilities, I understood that one's professionalism does not depend on one's physical condition. You are not inferior to others, and at some things you are even better than those with good eyesight.
Speaking about education, at the Academy I obtained good basic knowledge, although at that moment its teaching staff was far scarcer than now. I think that maybe if I were studying there now, I could get much more useful skills and knowledge. While I was a student, you often had to interrogate your professor if you wanted to get additional information. But this is not strictly bad, because you get to understand how much you actually need this information.
My knowledge wasn't sufficient when I tried to get a job, but the Academy gave me the momentum I needed for further work and more education on my own. The Academy could not give me all the information I needed, but it taught me how to obtain it.
I think that I was lucky with this whole employment matter: I got a job pretty fast and in my line of work, too. I graduated from the Academy with a degree in music sound engineering, but then started working for a radio channel, namely for the All Russia Association of the Blind radio. Earlier I had tried to get a job at the library for the blind at Mira Ave., Moscow, but, unfortunately for me, they had found another person for the vacancy".
"We feel that such coeducation is the right thing. This is our academy's special approach to inclusive education. In normal circumstances people with impairments are included into a group of students with no special needs, but we do the opposite: we introduce students with no health limitations into a group of people with disabilities, into the environment which is accessible for them. As a result, we can witness a process that we define as ‘inclusion in reverse’. People get to know one another, get used to live side by side. Some may say that the society is not ready to accept people with disabilities, but our graduates with no special needs are fully prepared for this. They are always glad to help a person with disabilities, show attention to them", tells Yulia Pavlovna Antonova, dean of the Music Faculty.