Special View recaps the year's achievements the most important projects and plans for the future

Audio description: a coloured photo. A man dressed in a white shirt and a classic grey jacket is standing against a grey backdrop, his arms crossed. His name is Vladimir Plekhov. The shirt collar is unbuttoned, a white triangle of a handkerchief sticks out of the jacket breast pocket. Vladimir is smiling. His blue eyes are looking straight into the camera; his high forehead is rimmed by dark hair, neatly parted on the side.

In 2021, the Special View program launched new practical courses and grants, presented a project on inclusiveness of Russia’s Golden Ring and held the first regional festival of socially-oriented theatre. Vladimir Plekhov, deputy chief of the Special View program, tells about other memorable events of the year coming to an end, and about activities planned for the next year, including a contest with a Braille display as the prize, offline computer courses and an online course on self-reliance.

Could you please tell us about the most important projects that the Special View program carried out in 2021?

This year, we had several major events. For example, we presented to the public tactile models of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in the Red Square. This inspired the new project on making heritage buildings of Russia’s Golden Ring accessible for visually challenged tourists. The project is going to take three years to complete. Not so long ago we got it going by presenting a tactile model of Prince Dmitry’s Palace in Uglich.

Moreover, in partnership with the Inclusion centre, we held Special View: Regions Forum Festival of Socially-Oriented Theatre in Kazan. Plus, this year the concept of audio description celebrated its tenth anniversary. Together with our partners, including the Rehacomp Institute, our program initiated new projects aimed at making cinema accessible for those with visual impairments. Now customers may visit one of the country’s oldest cinema theatres, Khudozhestvenny, and choose a show with audio description. Furthermore, together with Megaphone TV and Tricolor TV platforms, we launched the Online Typhlo Cinema, and thanks to this, 137 feature and animation films are now available for viewing with audio description.

In December, within the framework of the Special View program, supported by experts from the International Council of Museums (ICOM, Russian branch), we published a unique book, Accessible Museum for Sightless Visitors.

Audio description: a coloured photo. A winter day. A woman in a pale fur coat is studying the bronze tactile model of St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow. Her palm is wrapped around one of the smaller cupolas. Every cupola of the cathedral has its own ornament and relief.

What kind of goals did the program have for 2021?

The program is growing; our projects are in high demand among people with visual impairments and specialists in this field. We survived the crisis caused by measures against the pandemic, and learned to fit into the new reality. However, all this virus situation slowed down many of our initiatives.

We defined our program’s mission and messages long ago, but this year we got down to reevaluating our strategic goals. Now that we have long-term plans for our program’s development, we have clear understanding of where we are going and what major changes we want to achieve by 2024.

How many grants competitions and practical courses did you organize in 2021? Which ones were in highest demand?

In 2021 we were mostly focusing on practices for self-reliance. Around a thousand recipients from 42 regions of Russia benefited from our support. Among our assets we have courses on wayfinding and mobility, successful and very popular computer studies for the sightless and courses on self-reliance. Thanks to the Special View program, in 2021 more than 50 visually disabled persons were taught to use mobile devices.

Moreover, we are getting consultations from dog trainers working at a school for guide dogs. Our program’s team of professional instructors is constantly growing, and its specialists are improving their skills non-stop.

Of course, our grants competition for theatres, which has already become a tradition, is in very high demand. It is aimed at developing theatre repertory with audio description and supplying theatres with the equipment for this purpose.

How many theatres were provided with special equipment this year? How many cities now have audio description?

In 2021, 40 repertory theatres in 26 cities were able to provide audio comment for their plays. 26 theatres from 18 cities were supplied with equipment for audio description. It is very important for us to go on with this initiative. That is why in the next year we will not just keep holding our grants competitions, but raise the number of potential winners.

Audio description: a coloured photo. Casually dressed people are standing in a spacious brightly lit foyer. Two young women, a blonde and a brunette, are distributing black headphones and receivers for audio description among the visitors. The blonde is explaining to a short middle-aged woman how to use the equipment. The woman’s eyes are closed; she is studying the receiver carefully with her hands.

One of the most popular contests of the program is the competition for audio description specialists training. Are you planning such training for the year to come?

Within the framework of our program, we offer the opportunities for professional development of audio description specialists and teachers, but to this day, the problem of introducing audio description into everyday life and social and cultural environment is still waiting to be solved.

Our huge army of associated specialists in audio description will still be insufficiently demanded in the legal sphere until the professional standard is approved and until Russian state standards (GOST) for audio description take effect. For this reason, we put all our efforts into formalizing the legal aspect and supporting our partners who are helping to introduce “audio description specialist” as a profession all around Russia.

At the moment, the grants program for training new audio description specialists is suspended. It is important to create conditions for those specialists who already have been trained so they can fulfill their potential.

Please tell us about creating tactile models.

Our first project in this line was holding grants competitions for Russian museums to make tactile models for a range of their exhibits. The first competition took place last year, but the tactile models themselves were delivered in 2021. We are so proud that thanks to this line of our program, 12 cities now have accessible tactile museum exhibitions. One of the museums that benefited from our initiative was Yasnaya Polyana museum estate (which had once belonged to Leo Tolstoy) that celebrated its hundredth anniversary this year.

I’ve already mentioned the Special View at the Golden Ring project aimed at creating tactile models for the architectural masterpieces along this route. We started with Uglich. This project helps us to break this Do Not Touch museum stereotype we learned as kids. This is the “special view” at historic sites, not only for our intended audience, but for all the visitors of the museum, who now have the opportunity to see a masterpiece of architecture from different angles. The tactile model of Prince Dmitry’s Palace in Uglich is not just a copy or an art object, but a reconstruction which is true to its historic image, 1 to 100 in scale.

The Special View at the Golden Ring is a unique project that has no precedent or analog in Russia. The Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir, the fire tower in Kostroma, the Trinity Lavra of Saint Sergius in Sergiev Posad, The Cathedral of Transfiguration of the Savior in Pereslavl-Zalessky and other masterpieces of architecture will be provided with their tactile copies in 2021-2023.

Audio description: a coloured photo. A bronze tactile copy of Prince Dmitry’s Palace in Uglich. It is installed in front of its original, in front of a high front porch with massive support posts. The model is a square building with narrow windows and carved details decorating the porch. A bronze plate in front of the model contains information about the historical monument written in Braille.

One more major line of your work is the Special View Forum Festival of Socially-Oriented Theatre. This year the program presented another project within its framework, namely the Regions Forum Festival. Could you please tell us more about it?

When we held the first Forum Festival of Socially-Oriented Theatre in Moscow, we realized that this event must become regular. To develop socially-oriented theatre in our country, we need a comprehensive approach, including the support of regional theatre groups. That is why we, together with the Inclusion Centre, decided to hold the festival in the capital and in regions in turn.

However, the pandemic made its own changes in our plans, so the festival that had been planned to take place in Kazan was rescheduled and held this year. It was visited by more than 250 participants from 11 cities.

As for the regional agenda, the success of the Kazan forum festival showed huge demand for socially-oriented theatre, so now we are thinking about where the next regional festival should be held. At the moment, we are considering the Ural region and the city of Yekaterinburg, which is famous for its theatre traditions. But all this is still plans, while first we are looking forward to the national-level festival. It will take place in Saint Petersburg in May 2021. By the way, this year the festival was provided with its own Internet page, its business card website which contains all the information on the project.

What is the difference between the regional festival and the “big” one?

The difference is in the agenda of the festival, which is based on the peculiarities of each region and its opportunities. However, we don’t want to divide our festivals into those held in the capital and those in regions. The essential goal of the regional festival movement is our strategy to scale up the values of socially-oriented theatre. It is most important for us to give theatre groups and specialists from all parts of the country this opportunity to participate.

My colleagues and I are looking at the perspectives for further development, and we already have the understanding that within the framework of the festival, people will come up with ideas for various higher-scale projects and events, that will surpass the limits of the yearly festival in the capital or in the regions.

Audio description: a coloured photo. A spacious, brightly lit hall. The participants of the Special View: Regions Forum Festival of Socially-Oriented Theatre in Kazan, a score of young men and women, are gathered into a tight circle. In the centre of the circle, a young man is kneeling. His head is tilted back, his eyes closed. All the others are surrounding him, reaching their hands up, and putting their arms around each other’s shoulders. Many of them are smiling or laughing. Some are wearing green Special View: Regions T-shirts.

This year you published a manual guide to museum accessibility. Is this a new line of your program? Why did you decide to develop such guides? Are you going to work further along this line?

The Accessible Museum for Sightless Visitors manual guide was developed by a group of experts in partnership with the International Council of Museums (ICOM, Russian branch). Publishing is not completely new to us. Last year we published a manual aimed at abilitation of the sightless. I’m talking about Everyone Can Cook! book by Marta Lyubimova.

As I said earlier, 2021 became a starting point to scale up many of our successful projects and practices. The Special View team understands that grants alone cannot comprehensively solve the problem of inclusiveness and accessibility of the country’s thousand museums. The purpose of the guide is to show some case studies and effective methods of working with visually challenged persons. The guide can be obtained by any organization by filing an application on our portal.

We believe that this book will be helpful not just for museum staff, but for specialists from other cultural and educational institutions, representatives of noncommercial organizations, funds, sustainable businesses and authorities.

We see great demand for such guides, that is why we chose this strategic line of work and are planning to develop it.

Tell us about the program’s plans for the next year. What are the major projects you are going to fulfill?

The key projects, of course, are our scheduled events, namely the Forum Festival in Saint Petersburg, and opening most of the heritage buildings tactile models from the Golden Ring accessibility project. We are planning to double the total number of recipients in our abilitation projects. For this, we will extend the geography of generosity to the farthest parts of our country.

But the most essential work that the Special View program team has defined for itself will be focused on comprehensive scaling up of our projects and on solving many questions at the country level. We are working towards including devices, such as Braille displays, into the classification of means for rehabilitation of visually disabled persons. We are actively participating in various events, national forums, in government advisory bodies concerning education availability and solving vital problems of the disabled. Together with our partners, we support and show our interest in quicker approving of professional standards and specifications to regulate audio description in our country. Our special attention is focused on digital environment accessibility and availability of cinema and media services for visually impaired persons. In this sphere, too, a good dynamic can be witnessed.

Today we can state with confidence that the Special View program is the leader in innovative development of an accessible environment and inclusive practices on an institutional level.

Audio description: a coloured photo. A spacious, bright room. Six men and women in black aprons are standing in a row along a large table. They are taking part in an Everyone Can Cook master class organized by the Special View program. They are slicing something on cutting boards. Two of them are working with their eyes open, the others are wearing sun glasses or are cooking blindfolded. Small bowls and cutlery in holders are placed in front of them on the table. A young man in a white shirt and a black apron is standing at the head of the table, using another cutting board.

Are you planning to launch new grants competitions or practical courses in 2022? Are there going to be new educational projects?

We will keep going with the courses and competitions already in action, broadening their geography. It feels quite gratifying that we will continue with the contest we launched in 2020, that aims at providing Braille displays to physical persons, meaning sightless people who wish to obtain a Braille display for educational purposes, work and so on. Very soon we will start accepting applications for a whole range of extensive off-line computer courses for beginners, and Together with Mom courses, aimed at teaching a child to deal with everyday tasks together with a sighted parent or caregiver.

Our educational projects will not stop at publishing manual guides. Our Special View portal will also be developing along this line to become the leading information resource concerning visual impairments.