What is it like to live in a world without sounds and images? To be constantly alone with yourself and perceive the world only through scents and touches? Is it possible to learn to read, write, move about independently and obtain a good profession? Yes! It was once proved by deaf-blind scholar Olga I. Skorokhodova, a teacher-defectologist, Candidate of Pedagogical Sciences. In her amazing book How I Perceive, Imagine and Understand the Surrounding World, she described how she managed to break through the glass wall between herself and the world and to learn “seeing by thoughts”.
Olga I. Skorokhodova was born in 1911 in the Ukraine near the city of Kherson. Her parents were farmers. They had a low income, but it was a happy family. When her father was conscripted for military service in 1914, her mother became the only breadwinner of the family. She would spend all her days at work – toiling as a farm labourer for the local priest – while little Olga stayed at home with her grandfather. Still, it was a happy time for the girl. The tragedy happened when Olga turned eight. After falling ill with meningitis, she lost her vision and started turning deaf – at first in one ear and then in the other. By then, her grandfather had already died, and her paternal relatives had moved to another house. Care for the girl was now totally on her mother’s shoulders. Olga later recollected how they hoped at first that it would all change and that her illness would end. It was scary to believe that deafness and blindness were going to stay with her forever:
“The country was in chaos, there was a civil war, and, of course, my mother could not get any help for me from anywhere. To be honest, she was doing what she could, she took me to doctors in Kherson, but both eye and ear specialists would just pat me on the head and advised my mother to keep her spirits up.”
Apart from doctors, her mother used to take little Olga to charlatan-quacks and priests. The girl even started to fear the countless procedures that were being used to try and heal her: barrels of hot water, cold dresses covered in coarse salt, long prayers in a corner kneeling down on peas, numerous herb infusions etc. She was not getting any better. On the contrary, development problems followed since Olga was alone during daytime, in darkness and silence, while her mother was at work. It became even worse when her mother contracted tuberculosis and became bedridden. The deaf-blind girl had to care for herself and her mother. Sometimes, she would have to beg the neighbours for bread to feed herself and her mother. Hungry and disorientated, she was found by her aunt and taken into her house.
Soon her mother died, and her father started a new family in another village. Olga was taken in by her uncle who lived in Kherson. It was nice to live with her uncle, and even the pain of losing her mother dulled a little. Olga wanted to stay there for good and even promised to herself to be kind, respectful and help around the house. However, it was not meant to be – the uncle sent her to a school for blind children in Odessa. Olga did not like to talk about that period of her life, even when she became an adult, and she would firmly cut short tactless questions about her relatives:
“Why do you not ask what I am reading, and whether I am getting acquainted with current politics? I do not find any pleasure in talking about the relatives I barely know since they abandoned me when I was a child. If anyone finds pleasure in hearing such “touching” things, there are loads of books where the authors go into details about how children suffer from their parents’ cruelty.”
She had to bear all the difficulties of her new life alone. There were many children in the school, but they did not really understand how to communicate with the new girl. They often screamed into her ears, hoping that she would be able to hear them. So Olga became totally deaf and started to have balance issues. She was often left locked up while the others went for a walk. That was when her strong and brave character manifested for the first time: risking falling down and getting hurt, Olga would escape to the school yard, where she climbed fences and trees. Her main yearning was to discover the world, and she could do that only with the help of other people. In her diary, she would later write:
“The whole of life existence that flows around me is separated from me by a “glass wall”… Whenever I want to perceive this life directly, without the help of hearing and sighted people, I hit this thin “glass wall”, which is like the Great Wall of China to me… I have always wanted to be closer to people to learn from them about what is happening around me…”
In the photo: The building of the Kharkov School for Blind Children
Audio description: This is a black-and-white postcard with an image of a two-storey classicistic building. The building stands on a high socle. The façade is interrupted by rows of closely set windows and two protrusions. Over one of them, there is a sign in pre-revolutionary Russian orthography – “Kharkov school for blind children”. Above the image, there is an inscription in Russian and French – “Kharkov. School for the blind”.
Olga's life changed in 1925, when Professor Ivan A. Sokolyansky, a Soviet defectologist and specialist in typhlo- and surdo-pedagogy (teaching children with visual and hearing impairments), learned about her. Sokolyansky took the girl into his new clinic in Kharkov – for deaf-blind children. Only five children were living there at the time. They were the focus of doctors, mentors and teachers. Olga recollected that every member of staff treated the children like their own, and at first she could not even understand why she had been taken into such a nice place and what she was expected to do there. However, she felt that a new era in her life had started, something important, even though it was not easy to get used to the new place and new rules.
The main problems were caused by her lack of skills in communication with adults and her inability to understand correctly many of their actions. It even seemed to her that everybody wanted to purposefully hurt her feelings. For example, she could not understand why she had to wear unusual clothes and footwear, and why there were so many rooms for sleeping, eating and studying whereas just two rooms had been enough at home. For a long time, she could not master eating with a knife and fork. And when she climbed up on windowsills or touched the unusual clocks on the walls trying to study her surrounding space, she would get offended at being stopped and made to do something that she was not interested in.
In the photo: Professor Ivan A. Sokolyansky
Audio description: The background is light-grey with an abstract pattern. On the left, there is a black-and-white photo of a doctor in his office. This is Professor Ivan A. Sokolyansky, a Soviet defectologist and specialist in typhlo- and surdo-pedagogy. He is a middle-aged man wearing a white coat and round thin-rimmed glasses. He has thick dark hair with his hairline symmetrically receding on the forehead. He is sitting at a desk, on which there is an abacus and some instruments. On the walls, there are round diagrams and a graphic portrait of famous Russian physiologist Ivan P. Pavlov: the grey-haired academician is sitting half-turned, leaning on his right elbow.
The first joy came when the professor taught Olga to communicate – at first with specific gestures and then with the finger alphabet (dactylology). The possibility to convey her thoughts to adults and other children was her greatest discovery. Olga started to learn and put great effort into it. She was also studying handcrafts and clay modelling, but she particularly loved sculpture. There were many sculptures in the clinic, and the girl kept exploring them with her fingertips. She noticed that a special sensitivity had appeared in her hands. With the help of her hands, she could not only determine different objects, but even recognise friends and teachers by their touch. The vision got replaced by touch, smell and vibrations of the air. Olga described this in the following way:
“I do not hear any noise from outside, and I do not see any light – I live in darkness and silence, but that does not mean that I am immersed in non-existence. On the contrary, I know that there is a constant flow of human life around me. I try to imagine the lives of the people and movement in the city. However, noise and sounds seem to me like continuous vibrations. The light and sounds are switched off. There is only air – its movement and the direction of this movement, its temperature, saturation with scents and so on… These seemingly minor, unnoticeable sensations gradually form a definitive and harmonious view of the surrounding world…”
With the help of her hands, Olga even learned how to listen to music – she would touch the top of the piano, feel the vibrations and repeat them with her hands, almost like a conductor. Her hands also helped her to easily find her way around a room, take care of her needs, be independent and use all kinds of signals – for example, she invented a way of attaching a special string to her door – and, by its movements, she would know when somebody entered the room or knocked on her door. Later, she found her main joy in reading. She described it as the only means of salvation for a deaf-blind and non-verbal or deaf- blind person, and she called books her friends and teachers. Thanks to reading, Olga was able to start learning the school programme. And even more importantly, she understood that, through knowledge, she would be able to get access to everything that ordinary people had in their lives:
“It resembled that moment on a rainy day when suddenly the sun comes out, and its bright and warm rays start warming not just your body, but seemingly your feelings as well… I realised that, despite my physical disabilities, I was able to become a person in the spiritual and intellectual sense. It had always seemed to me that, since I could neither see nor hear, I would be unable to gain sufficient knowledge… However, since I started reading interesting books, I have been increasingly interested in life and everything that is going on around me, but previously I was just thinking about my inability to see or hear anything. It was very hard for me, and now I feel better…”
In the collage (from left to right): The cover of the book by Olga Skorokhodova; Olga Skorokhodova and Professor Ivan A. Sokolyansky; Professor Ivan A. Sokolyansky during a public talk
Audio description: This is a black-and-white photocollage. There are three photos against a light-grey background with an abstract pattern. In the upper left-hand corner is the cover of Olga Skorokhodova's bookHow I Perceive the World, featuring a vignette with the author’s name and the book's title. Below, there is an inscription -– “APS Publishing House, 1947”. In the middle of the collage below, there is a photo yellow with age: against a winter landscape background, a man in round glasses and wearing a peaked cap and coat is holding the elbow of a girl wearing a coat, boots and balaclava helmet. They are Professor Ivan A. Sokolyansky and Olga Skorokhodova. In the upper right-hand corner, there is a chest-high photo portrait of Ivan A. Sokolyansky wearing round glasses, a dark jacket and white shirt: he has a high retreating forehead, big straight nose, big lips and deep wrinkles around his mouth. Behind him, there is an out-of-focus image of an auditorium with an audience.
In the clinic, Olga also learned how to use special writing tools for the visually impaired – a stylus, hand Braille slate and Braille typewriter. And following the professor’s advice, she started to keep a diary and write her own stories. Literature and poetry became her true passion. They did not just give food to her imagination, but they also helped her to discover and visualise something that she had never seen, heard or felt before. Gradually, Olga familiarised herself with literature and arts and even started corresponding with real writers such as Maxim Gorky. The first letter from Gorky arrived in 1933 and, according to her memoirs, amazed the girl. It was the beginning of a good friendship with a man who helped Olga to believe in her own special mission.
“He inspired me and pointed me towards everything good and sensible. With each of his letters, I grew intellectually. Urging me to be a use to science, he wrote to me: “You are serving humanity, and you are entitled to be proud of your service.”
In the photo: Olga Skorokhodova
Audio description: This is a black-and-white photocollage. There are two images against a light-grey background with an abstract pattern. In the photo in the upper left-hand corner, Olga Skorokhodova, dressed in black, with her dark hair separated in the middle, is studying with her fingers a Pushkin bust cast. The image in the bottom right-hand corner features her, with her hair tied back, wearing a dress with a white lace collar. She is sitting behind a desk making notes with the help of a Braille writing tool and stylus. On the desk, there is a small writing bureau and a neat pile of books.
Sadly, Olga did not get the chance to meet her favourite writer before his death. She came to Moscow only in May of 1941. At the time, she was amazed by the energy of the capital city and the warm welcome that she received. It seemed to her that her soul started “growing a pair of wings”. Being a member of the Komsomol, Olga zealously participated in the Party life. It seems incredible, but she managed to master public speaking and would give talks at Komsomol meetings. Her hands helped her control her voice – she touched her throat and knew by vibrations whether she should talk louder or softer, lower or higher. Olga even dreamed of entering a literature faculty, but her plans were ruined by the war.
Due to her disability, there was not even a question of her going to war, but she helped her country in her own way: she raised the soldiers' spirits by her texts, poems and stories. In 1943, she nearly perished herself – during the siege of Kharkov, six students of the clinic were killed, but Olga managed to escape.
In 1944, Olga moved to Moscow, where she again met her teacher – Professor Sokolyansky. In another three years, she published her first book, based on her diaries. The book was awarded the Ushinsky Prize. In 1948, Olga became a research worker at the Research Institute of Defectology of the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences of the USSR (now: Institute of Correctional Education of the Russian Academy of Education (RAE)) and started studying the topic of psychology and development of the deaf-blind. She saw her main goal in defeating prejudice in society. She wanted to prove that disabled people are not necessarily a burden on society, and that they can be fully-fledged members of society, but they need good education and good teachers. She advised her disabled fellows to read a lot and persevere:
“The few things that I know I learned from reading books and talking to cultured people. Nobody has inherent knowledge. You acquire it through learning and hard work on yourself. My formation and development of logical speech became possible due to three main factors: 1) correctly organised work time; 2) efficient approach, guidance and considerate attitude from my teacher; 3) my persistence and perseverance in mastering knowledge.”
In 1961, Olga defended her thesis and became a candidate of pedagogical sciences (psychology). Her works – books and articles – are unique and incredibly honest. Even more honest are her poems, in which she was not afraid to tell the truth and admit her fears and weaknesses:
Olga did not like to be pitied. She almost always lived alone, took care of herself and her home and proudly answered to any pity: “Do not pity me – I am as much of a human being as you are.” Instead of suffering, she preferred to act. She travelled a lot, took part in scientific conferences in the USSR and abroad, often gave lectures and replied to letters of her numerous fans and students. Thanks to her support, in 1962 a boarding school for deaf-blind children was opened in Sergiyev Posad near Moscow.
In 1974, Olga was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour. In 1982, she died aged 71.