In Russia, the majority of visually impaired children study in special correctional schools, where optimal learning conditions ensure their rehabilitation and socialisation. A significant part of the education process is focused on correctional subjects. Children are provided with psychological and educational support, learn the Braille system of reading and writing, as well as receive assistance to adapt to society and form an active life position. In secondary and upper school, visually impaired teenagers are actively introduced to job opportunities through career guidance and professional training. The 12-year education process includes primary school (years 1-4), incomplete secondary school (years 5-10) and complete secondary school (years 11-12).
At the international level, the right of children with disabilities to education is enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified by Russia in 2012. In Russia, the training of people with disabilities is regulated by the Federal Laws on Education and on Social Protection of Persons with Disabilities, which guarantee such children the right to free high-quality secondary education. All school programmes are adapted for special-needs pupils. Since 2015, a special state standard on the education of children with disabilities in primary school has been working in test mode. Education in secondary and complete secondary schools is based on general standards for mainstream schools, and teachers independently adjust each programme to the education process.
Training apartment as an adaptation method
A typical day in a special school is divided into a few stages. The first half of the day is dedicated to studying adapted general education subjects, which is followed by correctional classes: spatial orientation, visual hygiene, social and domestic orientation. The rest of the day is distributed between additional classes (creative workshops, sports and singing classes), homework and outdoor activities.
Audio description: This is a colour photo. A lesson in primary school. Boys and girls of about eight years old are sitting at single desks. A woman is standing in front of the teacher’s desk and is showing a drawing. A female pupil is standing by the interactive board. In front of her, three women are sitting with their backs to the class and are looking at the drawing that she is showing. On the interactive board, there is a slide with a photograph of a picture and a caption My Drawings.
“In our work, we use Braille textbooks, tactile manuals and models. Every pupil in the classroom receives an assignment in Braille or in a larger font if they still have residual vision. For this purpose, the school has special printers and a specialist developing and preparing teaching materials,” said Albina Galishina, a 1st-category teacher of mathematics and computer science from the Martirosyan Boarding School for Visually Impaired Children in Verkhnyaya Pyshma.
According to her, they often experience a lack of specialised materials, and school staff develop these materials in their private time, usually before exams.
“It is quite difficult to keep pace with the times. For example, the maths assignments to prepare for the Basic State Exam and the Unified State Exam often change, therefore, the previous Braille editions become outdated. We have to print new materials, which is rather problematic. We manually embroider some of the drawings for the preparation for the exams – in this way it is possible for children to better understand how a certain shape is located on the plane,” Albina said. “There are very few Braille textbooks on computer science so we create our own manuals, prepare assignments and print them in Braille. Despite the lack of specialised teaching materials, we manage – thanks to the collective efforts of our staff – to prepare our kids properly for the exams, although sometimes it costs our teachers a few sleepless nights.”
Social and domestic orientation at the Martirosyan School starts with introducing pupils to the training apartment. As spatial orientation typhlo-teacher Anastasia Zamyatina told us, the school is equipped with a proper apartment. Here, pupils are taught personal hygiene: how to clean their shoes, iron clothes, as well as how to cook and tidy up. Younger children study orientation inside the school building, older pupils gradually start going outside into the schoolyard, where they learn the basic techniques of how to move around an open area. As for upper-form pupils, the teacher works with them in an urban environment, where they practise basic routine: how to visit a store, bank, hospital, travel by public transport etc.
“In primary school, we work according to the Federal State Standard for Blind and Partially Sighted Children. It was specially developed for educating these children, but it has been challenging for the staff to comply with it. According to the standard, primary-school pupils must learn how to cook, get out of the school building and even move confidently along relevant town routes. But this is unlikely since we receive blind kids who are not adapted at all, and walking to and around the town is not an option for them. That raises the question of how appropriate the standard is. It definitely requires improvement,” added Anastasia.
According to the teachers, it would be useful if the education standard included classes for ethics and communication culture. “Modern blind children are often unfamiliar with the basics of social behaviour. Once I bumped into a visually impaired child in a library for the blind and was immediately attacked with questions: “Who are you? Where are you going? What have you got in your hands?” Also, I was touched all over without any hesitation or any permission on my part. I’m okay with that. I’m also blind. But for a normally sighted person, meeting such a child could at the very least be an unpleasant experience,” says Elena Konyukhova, Candidate of Pedagogical Sciences, Associate Professor at the Social Work Technologies Chair of the Institute of Social Education at Ural State Pedagogical University. “Therefore, it is important to incorporate the standards of behaviour and communication culture in the upbringing of children. At the same time, it is important to foster in them a strong will, a desire to persevere and win, to have determination, social skills and diligence.”
Audio description: This is a colour photo. In a room with white walls, there is a row of desks. On the desks, there are desktop computer towers. Between the monitor and the computer keyboard, each desk has a digital piano keyboard, with a computer mouse next to it. One or two children are sitting at each desk.
School and parents
Many parents are involved in the education process: they arrange open days for newcomers, give lectures and master classes, as well as share their experience in raising blind children. According to the chairperson of the Moscow public organisation Parents of Blind Children, Anastasia Dneprovskaya, it has been a recent trend.
“There are no specific standards and established technologies for interaction between parents, children and schools. For a long time, many parents stayed away from the education process, considering it to be exclusively the school’s responsibility. They would bring their children to a boarding school and then take them back home just for holidays or weekends,” Anastasia says. “Now, it’s different, of course. In many regions, a number of public organisations for parents of blind children have recently been created. Also, parents’ associations and councils operate in the majority of schools.”
Anastasia's 16-year-old son attends the No.1 Moscow Boarding School for Training and Rehabilitation of the Blind. Here, she says, parents and teachers have managed to establish close interaction with each other. They hold meetings and participate in the parent-teacher club, where both parties exchange their experience in the form of lectures and master classes. There is a conflict management commission for resolving any differences. Open days, master classes and workshops are regularly held for parents of potential pupils. The school also has a pre-school for blind children starting from the age of three, where kids prepare for school under the supervision of defectologists and typhlo-teachers.
A business game as an element of career guidance
Since 2013, the Martirosyan School at Verkhnyaya Pyshma has been carrying out the unique social experiment Business Town. The project for the career guidance of partially sighted and blind upper-school pupils is implemented throughout the academic year and consists of a number of stages. In the first stage, pupils attend master classes hosted by invited specialists: lawyers, psychologists, musicians, massage therapists etc. They are mainly successful professionals with disabilities.
“During the first stage, pupils choose a profession. Supervised by mentors selected from teachers and business people, they develop a concept of their own company, create a business plan, search for sources of financing for their start-ups and recruit employees,” Sergey Balan, deputy head teacher for education at the Martirosyan School, toldSpecial View.“During the second stage, over a few days at the end of the year, the school simulates the town's social and economic environment, where children can try themselves as entrepreneurs, company employees or customers. They set up massage parlours, cafes, hairdresser's, singing studios, travel agencies and even cinemas.”
Economic relations between the players are exercised through a fake currency. At the end of the game, the expert jury determines the most successful companies according to the quality of the profit and services provided. The best managers and employees are acknowledged separately.
“Our blind pupils have a great opportunity to try themselves at launching their own company, obtaining basic skills of self-organisation, staff administration and business management. Many participants in the game become more confident and independent, enroll and successfully graduate from universities and find jobs,” Sergey Balan added.
Audio description: This is a colour photo. There is a group of people on stage: about ten teenage girls and a few adults. Above the stage is a blue banner with the large text: “Inclusive Business Game”. In the foreground, a man with a white cane in his hand smiles and speaks into a microphone. Standing next to him, a smiling woman is holding a horizontal picture in her hands and showing it to the audience. The picture depicts two faces and a bird in an expressionist manner.
High tech and 3D printing
Natalya Cherepanova, head of the Sverdlovsk regional public organisation of parents of blind children Window to the World, believes that, in a world of information technology, computer science should be one of the most important subjects. At the Martirosyan Boarding School, the parents' request has been acknowledged, and now computer science is offered as an additional subject starting from year four.
Information technology is also widely used in Moscow. According to Anastasia Dneprovskaya, pupils in year nine and above at the No.1 Boarding School for Training and Rehabilitation of the Blind have the right to choose whether to make notes of a lecture in a paper notebook or on a computer. If necessary, a blind pupil is provided with a school computer and a Braille line.
The advent of 3D printing was marked by a breakthrough in the production of tactile manuals and teaching materials. A perfect example of using spatial printing for education is the project for creating typhlo-maps launched by Andrey Medvedev, head of the cartography laboratory at the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences, with support from the Special Viewprogramme at the Art, Science and Sport Charity Foundation.
Typhlo-maps are fully-featured coloured maps made of plastic with tactile graphics for visually impaired people. Raised lines of different thickness, shape and texture mark countries' borders, rivers, roads and even sea currents. Correctional schools from all over Russia showed an interest in these unique materials, so now Medvedev’s laboratory helps blind children from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok study geography more accurately and in greater detail.
In addition to typhlo-maps, the authors of the project developed and set up a production of tactile anatomical manuals for biology classes. They allow pupils to study with their hands the human skeleton, muscle structure, the brain and even a tiny cell.
Audio description: This is a colour photo. A tactile typhlo-map of Russia. The territory of Russia is white and contains dots and the names of several large cities. The water area is blue with horizontal hatching. The territory of other countries is grey and filled with rows of dots. Above the map, there is a key to the tactile symbols.
Although state education standards are not perfect and a lot is being done at schools thanks to the sheer enthusiasm of individual teachers and parents, schools for blind and partially sighted children are becoming more technologically advanced, and approaches to education are getting more diverse. Perhaps, this is why we increasingly hear about successful young people with visual impairments who have a job, a family or even their own business. Behind the success of disabled people lies the enormous amount of work on their part and the invaluable efforts of their typhlo-pedagogues.