While traveling around Italy on my own, my priority was to visit the Institute for the Blind in Milan. The oldest educational institution in Italy is hidden in the narrow quiet streets, ten minutes away from the subway.
The doors of the institute first opened in 1840 in an industrial building where a small area was set up for training blind people. In the nineteenth century, the curriculum included classes of arithmetic, logic, music, and needlework. In 1864 the institute was the first in Italy to use Braille system, so blind children received the opportunity to study grammar and read books, and the institute became the country's leading educational center for people with visual impairments.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the first kindergarten for blind children and specialized music classes were opened here. After more than a hundred years, students continue to apprehend the art of playing the piano, wind instruments, and even the pipe organ. The only difference is that now there are inclusive classes at the institute where visually impaired children and children without disabilities study together. The administration of the institute kindly agreed to give a tour to a traveler from Russia and share their riches.
The first thing you feel upon entering the building is history. The walls and columns, large hall and high ceilings, like in ancient palaces, everything is soaked with history here. You can feel the scale and the mark of time, even without vision. The antique upholstered furniture, chairs with carved backs and a wide staircase covered with a carpet lend a special charm to the place.
I immediately headed for the concert hall, where preparation for the performance was in progress: they checked the sound equipment and the light. I managed to visit backstage, have a quick chat with the musicians, and climb the steep spiral staircase to the holy of holies, the room with the pipe organ. According to the maestro, who was adjusting the instrument for the concert, the organ has been functioning for more than a century. After several attempts to remove it due to some defects, it was restored on request of the locals, who loved listening to blind musicians play. Now the instrument is regularly used during weekly concerts and morning lessons.
Vladimir Vaskevich at the pipe organ.
Audio description: colored photo. A young man sits at the organ with his hands above the keyboard. He looks at the camera and smiles. This is Vladimir Vaskevich. He is wearing black jeans and a violet sweater. He has short dark-blond hair with a side bang. A girl with the glasses stands by the organ.
Never did I dream of being able to touch the keyboard of an actual pipe organ, but, after playing several fascinating melodies, the maestro invited me to take his place. My fingers touched the keys in awe, and my feet felt numerous pedals. It’s incredible how this colossal tool made up of so many pipes can be controlled blindly. Indeed, one of the most experienced music teachers at the institute does not see at all.
After visiting the concert hall, we went to explore the workshops, where special didactic materials are created for the whole country. In a small room filled with tables and various equipment, I discovered how to make learning games and tactile books for blind children. For the little ones, they produce solid geometric figures. The goal is to organize the objects by size, placing them in special holes on the field. While playing, children develop excellent motor skills, learn to define, compare, and distinguish different shapes and volumes.
For older kids, they develop construction sets, car models, house models, and tactile books. The books are full-fledged with small stories written in Braille. Tactile compositions are made from environmental materials only. In these books, you can find green grass, learn about different trees and leaf shapes, and also touch the fur of squirrel, mink, and bunnies. All items are glued or sewn to the pages.
Audio description: colored photo. There’s a small album at the table with the large text on one page and tactile abstract figures on the other page. A green stripe is attached at the bottom with a red square and a blue triangle with one side shaped like the stairs. Two men stand by the table. One of the touches the figures with both hands, while the other one is guiding his fingers.
The workshop is mainly focused on making art and architecture accessible to the blind: solid models of different buildings and famous paintings are printed here using modern techniques and 3D-printers. I was pleasantly surprised to hold a matrix of the famous Milan Cathedral and then offered to craft a tactile copy on my own. Guided by the master, in a few minutes, I received a sheet of plastic, still hot after being printed. Once I began to examine it, I was convinced that I was holding an exact copy of the main cathedral of the city. I was absolutely thrilled.
Walking through the wide corridors of the institute and touching the walls, one can find raised Latin and Italian alphabets, Arabic and Roman numerals. For the most inquisitive, there are drawings of cars, schemes of the solar system, maps of the Earth, and portraits of famous people. As a trained physician, I particularly enjoyed the anatomical manuals, but a manual with illustrations of buildings demonstrating various architectural styles came as a revelation. Ancient Greek columns, elements of mosaics and arches of multiple forms, as well as Gothic cathedrals and Italian Baroque houses were tactically illustrated on its pages.
Vladimir Vaskevich with a tactile illustration of the Milan Cathedral.
Audio description: two colored photos. On the left, Vladimir Vaskevich examines the tactile plastic relief of the building with his hands. A man with the glasses stands beside him and smiles. At the table before them, there are colored schemes of the same façade. In the background of the workshop, there are metal shelves with boxes and papers. On the right photo, Vladimir Vaskevich shows the tactile relief to the camera and smiles. He has a white cane in his right hand. The man with the glasses stands to the left and smiles as well, hugging Vladimir by the shoulder.
There are also many exciting things and study groups for adult students. People who have lost their sight at a later age learn how to work on a computer and over a phone. They are also offered to master the available professions. One of the most common vacancies for the blind in Italy is a call center operator, said Francesco, the chief information technology specialist and the teacher of computer science at the institute. He showed me the class where he was teaching, which made me feel happy for Russia as I realized that the equipment in our schools for the blind was no worse than the European. The NVDA free screen reader is mainly used both, in Italy and in Russia, but there are some differences. The training in Italy is generally focused on mastering the braille line and the printer, but not all schools can provide every computer with such expensive equipment.
According to the teachers, there are no specialized correctional boarding schools in Italy. All blind children can attend ordinary schools nearby. There are also inclusive schools at monasteries, where children with different types of disabilities study together. I was assured that the majority of the graduates find jobs, even if they are not paid very well. Like in Russia, visually impaired people work as massage therapists, telephone operators, psychologists, notaries, lawyers, teachers, and translators. There are also factories for the blind, but since the Italian economy is not in good shape now, industrial enterprises are going through some rough times.
The idea of inclusive education is excellent, yet according to Franco Lisi, the director of the institute, it conceals some pitfalls. It is not easy to gather blind students for specialized competitions: most of them simply don’t want to travel from distant parts of the city. The problem of independence is also acute. Italy is a very family-oriented country where children can live with their parents up to their thirties or even longer. In the case of blind children, it often leads to excessive supervision by the family. While studying in ordinary schools and sometimes having a fully accessible urban environment, these kids still don’t walk on their own and prefer their mothers to guide them. However, the institute is actively working on this issue, that involves research on how to develop independent skills of the blind and arranging training apartments, where the kids can live from time to time supervised by experienced tutors.
During our conversation with the director, we agreed that there is still much work to be done. Each country has its faults and its unique experience, which must be shared. Therefore, I was invited to give a talk on innovations in Russia at the Milan conference on the education for blind people in Italy. In my turn, I thanked the director and the staff of the institute for welcoming me and presented a selection of the Ural sweets with the pictures based on the fairy tales by Pavel Bazhov.
After visiting the Institute for the Blind in Milan, I continued my journey around Italy. For eight days, I was able to travel through eight cities of this beautiful, hospitable country and appreciate not only the Italian culture, traditions, and cuisine but also the level of accessibility for people with disabilities.
Italy is all about history, ancient castles, houses, narrow streets, and endless medieval paving stones. It’s quite difficult to move around with a cane, and there’s no way a navigator can figure out the countless alleys of Venice, not to mention visually impaired tourists. But, despite the complexity of the urban environment, the authorities are striving to make the cities accessible for people with all types of disabilities. All the railway stations I visited were equipped with tactile tiles and braille plates, most of the pedestrian lights have acoustic traffic signals, and many museums have special tours for blind people.
Italians are focused on finding ways to make art accessible to visually impaired people. And I had the opportunity to appreciate it when I arrived in Florence. Here at the Duomo Museum, I was allowed to touch the stucco from the doors of the cathedral. One of the compositions was made of pure gold, which was absolutely astonishing. It turned out that during the restoration, one of the patrons of art bought a piece of stucco and donated it to the museum so that blind tourists could touch real art made of pure gold, rather than a copy.
Art reproduction: The Birth of Venusby Botticelli.
Audio description: colored art reproduction: The Birth of Venusby Botticelli. In the center of the painting, the goddess stands nude in a scallop shell swimming to the shore and driven by the wind. The goddess bent and slightly pulled back her right leg. She covers her chest with her hand and her womb with a curl of blond hair. In the left part of the picture a winged man and a woman fly covered with a light cloth: this is Zephyr in the arms of his wife, Chloris. Zephyr blows towards the shell, creating a breeze filled with pink flowers. One of the graces meets the goddess on the shore. This is a girl with long blond hair in a long, flowing dress with a flower pattern. She reaches out to the goddess, offering her a pink cloak. The trees with a think crown lean over the grace. In the background, there are a grey-blue sky and distant shores.
But even copies here inspire. In the famous Uffizi Gallery, you can find tactile prints of the paintings by great artists, which means that visually impaired people have a unique opportunity to discover the works of Botticelli, Da Vinci, and other great artists. Visitors with disabilities and their caregivers have free admission to all Italian museums.