Courses on wayfinding and computer studies, culinary courses for visually challenged people, grants for theatres and museums — these and other projects were launched in 2020 by the “Special View” program springing from “Art, Science and Sport” Charity Foundation. The Chief of the Program, Xenia Dmitriyeva, summarized the results of the year and sketched out the program’s plans for the future.
The year 2020 is coming to an end. Kindly tell us about the objectives the “Special View” program had this year and whether it managed to attain them.
It so happened that we somewhat anticipated the world’s shifting to online life. In 2019 we already performed a major restructuring of our website in order to begin supporting visually challenged people or their relatives directly (previously we had been helping them mostly through other organisations). Moreover, we prepared a range of new projects for self-realization, personality development and integration into the society for visually challenged people. All these projects may be characterized by the term of abilitation meaning a system of measures to form new skills in those who cannot see. These projects are new. We launched them in May 2020, at the peak of the pandemic. Some of them are fully online events, others are to be attended in person. But what is most important, is that all the support is actually supplied to the place of our recipients’ residence. We called this charity uber-ization. The recipient fills in a request using our website, we process it and perform the “delivery” of the support needed.
Furthermore, a large portion of the effort was devoted to the second big branch of our work, namely further unrolling of the sponsorship programs by our “Art, Science and Sport” Charity Foundation. I am talking about adaptation of the cultural sphere to the needs of the blind. This year we held several grants competitions for theatres, museums and visual description specialists. We issued money sums to 33 theatres, trained 15 visual description specialists (today, in total there are 122 of them in Russia) and provided equipment for enabling visual description commentary to 7 theatres. 11 museums won a series of tactile models that we create using our own efforts with participation of Olga and Michail Shu’s tactile models workshop. The pandemic has slightly changed our plans, so most likely they will be delivered to the museums only at the beginning of the year 2021.
How did the pandemic affect the program’s activities?
The epidemiological situation influenced practically all charity funds. It definitely touched us also, but not that badly, as we see it. On the plus side, we have Online Computer Studies course which allowed us to give support even in the strictest lockdown conditions. For other practic courses we collected applications till the end of the summer waiting for the situation to improve. We organized several trips, but unfortunately we had to put off part of the groups for offline practic courses till the year 2021. We had to do it not because we were unprepared, but due to social responsibility and the fact that the recipients themselves had fears of leaving their homes.
The biggest change we had to make was postponing “Special View: Regions” Forum Festival that had been scheduled to be held in Kazan in November 2020.
Audio description: a coloured photo. A teenage girl is standing in a bright room and holding a Braille display at chest level. It is a small black keyboard with blue buttons. The girl is smiling. She has thick curly hair covering her eas, her gaze is unfocused, she is wearing glasses with black and red rim and a white sweatshirt decorated with paillettes. Behind her, there are office furniture and bookshelves with document cases and big and small toy pyramids.
Tell us about the most important projects of this year. Did the program start new lines of activity?
During the quarantine of the first COVID wave we, together with Everland inclusive project that provides workplaces for people with various disabilities, conducted a research of websites usability. In total, we tested 75 Internet resources and about 200 applications and websites.
We analyzed the sites from the point of view of logics for users with different qualification levels. Now we published the results of this work in the Research section of the “Special View” portal, so that both state and commercial web services could see what they should improve in order to become more user-friendly to people with disabilities.
This research was very important for us and the community. Many people with disabilities have to keep to the stay-at-home routine most of their lives. Many of them don’t leave their homes because of inadequate infrastructure, social unreadiness to accept them or fear. This project served not just the practical goal of finding flaws and pointing them out to the professional community, but it was meant to show that people with disabilities live in self-isolation for quite a long time and badly need all the online services to be most easily manageable.
There exists a state standard for websites usability, but unfortunately, for now it is advisory rather than mandatory.
Is this a unique research?
We had to start from scratch. Few organizations conduct such research and specialize in digital usability systematically. UsabilityLab, Rubicon, Everland. These three have voluntary certification system, a document that allows them to confirm a resource’s usability by putting the “Usable” mark on it. Our research was headed by a visually challenged web developer, Artyom Plaksin. He also wrote an article for our portal on finding a competent specialist to test a website.
In May, you restarted the “Special View” information portal. Could you tell us about the work on the new version of the website and the goals you wished to achieve?
First and foremost, we needed to provide maximum usability and user-friendliness of the portal to those who cannot see. We built a team that included a web developer, a visual impairment specialist and two blind experts on website usability, Anatoly Popko and Alexey Lyubimov. Together with them we made decisions on the contents of the portal, the logic and the sequence of presenting the information so that our website would become convenient for all users, including those with no visual problems. After we created a draft version of the website and developed specifications, developers started working independently, and then, of course, the portal was tested by the sightless experts once again. For us it is crucial to enable blind users to work with the interactive section of the portal unaided: to file a request, to customize the portal for their purposes filtering the information they need to obtain.
Audio description: a coloured photo. A person is studying a tactile painting in a dark frame. The fingers of the person’s left hand are lightly touching a relief image of a mountain scene: grey and brown mountains and stratus clouds brooding above them.
What was your readers’ reaction to the portal restarting?
This year, statistics show 24% more visits. Our hypothesis is that there are three reasons for this: people started to spend more time online, our target group of recipients has found tangible benefits from using the portal and, of course, our promotion efforts yielded certain results. As for the changes in the website architecture, no doubt, our sightless audience who read us on a regular basis, needed time to get comfortable with the new version because they were accustomed to the old one.
One more major event was “Special View: Regions” Forum Festival of Socially-Oriented Theatre in Kazan. Why was it Volga Federal District that you devoted the festival to? How many applications were submitted from local theatre groups?
In 2019, when we held the first Forum Festival of Socially-Oriented Theatre in Moscow, we began wondering what would be our next step. We saw that the festival had to become a regular event. Together with Inclusion Centre for Creative Projects we decided that to establish socially-oriented theatre we needed comprehensive approach, including providing support to specific regions.
This is why we decided to develop the community, but it is impossible to cover the whole country at once. Hence, on alternate years, the festival will be held on a federal scale and take place in Moscow, and on other years between the federal format festivals it will dwell in one of Russian Federal Districts. This year we didn’t organize the festival, but managed to admit applications for participation. 54 candidates applied for taking part in the educational program, 43 theatre groups submitted their plays for the the theatrical part, moreover, we received applications for the inter-disciplinary part, which is a form of participation for practices close to theatre, including performance art, installations and so on. What is more, we held To Be Continued contest and selected 5 winners whose projects will be financed by us.
Why exactly Volga Federal District? The choice was between Kazan and Kaliningrad, but we have vast experience of collaboration with Volga Federal District, namely Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Izhevsk and other cities. We understand that this region has active community with many partnerships already developing in it. For example, in Kazan, Zhivoy Gorod Foundation became the forum partner. This is why we chose Volga Federal District as the location for our festival. We will definitely go on, and other federal districts will not be left out.
What other cities would you like hold the forum in?
The thing is, we have big plans for the year 2021. If the epidemiological situation allows, on March
Audio description: a coloured photo. A bright sunny day. Three persons are standing at the foot of the stairs: a woman, a man and a boy about 7 years old with close-cropped hair. The boy’s eyes are unfocused, he is holding a white cane in his right hand. He is wearing a dry-fit jacket, a pair of jeans and red snickers. A fair-haired woman is standing to the left of the boy, she has a green dress and suede knee boots on. She is directing the boy’s right hand, they are studying a tactile map together. To the right of the boy there is a man in a red wind jacket, jeans and blue snickers, his arms crossed.
Tell us about the project’s plans for the next year.
The main goal is to continue what we have started this year, to upscale our current projects. This year, in order to work on our program, we had to train 13 specialists to serve as teachers for computer studies courses (all of them totally blind people) and 8 wayfinding specialists. Next year, we are planning to train more experts. One can see we are literally building the infrastructure from ground zero. Unfortunately, in our field the number of specialists is limited, and the number of requests for support is enormous. This is why such programs as “Special View” are vital.
We decided to launch the grants for the next year in advance. Even now one can submit an application for providing visual description commentary in Moscow and other regions. We are planning to supply equipment for enabling visual description commentary to 35 new theatres and also to those that have collaborated with us.
We hope that those cities where there are resident visual description specialists (56 cities at the moment) will soon have this service in theatres, and we will help the theatres introduce it by sponsoring them.
Also, together with International Council of Museums (ICOM) in Russia we are preparing a museum project: we are working on a manual guide that will help adapt museums to the needs of those who cannot see. Such guides for the deaf and people with mental peculiarities already exist. Our guide will be ready next year, and any Russian museum will be free to obtain it.
Such are the major projects, but of course we will have special projects for digital usability and also those concerning different applications for visually challenged users, but it is still early to talk about this.
Are you planning to train visual description specialists in 2021?
For the next year, unfortunately, the training program does not include courses for new visual description specialists. This is due to the fact that we have already trained a rather big number of such specialists, but not all of them are employed and not all of them are helping to advance visual description commentary.
Now we are routinely organizing round tables for visual description specialists in order to involve them in this work after all — so that the cities that already have trained specialists would benefit from visual description services on a regular basis.