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Pushing the Envelope

 

Nataliya Mykhaylova takes a look at some rather unexpected aspects of life of the handicapped and at new ways and paths that have come to be explored.

 

A lot of changes have been occurring in recent years. The blind and the disabled find new ways of enjoying life more fully, of participating in the life of society in a more comprehensive and satisfying way.

How about this Five blind people jumped with parachutes! They could not see the great views that opened before them as they were descending, but they enjoyed immensely the free fall and then the slow descent into the sea where a group of rescuers was waiting for them. The jump liberated our souls, they said later.

Something that would have seemed impossible only a short while ago becomes acceptable though it was only in relatively recent times, that the blind and other physically handicapped people began to be more actively involved in the life of society.

 

These days they are provided with a growing number of opportunities not only to be useful for themselves or for society but to be truly enjoying life. Instead of a seclusion of home, an adventurous life becomes a reality rather than fantasy.

There are individuals who spearhead new developments. Others, then, follow. At the end of the 1990s, Volodymyr Petrovsky, a blind man, and his wife Svitlana, both historians by education, founded a rehabilitation fund, Integratsiya, whose aim was to help the blind and their families integrate into the social life.

A severe illness in his early childhood robbed Volodymyr of his eyesight.

It did not prevent him from attending a specialized school for children with impaired vision not a school for the completely blind, which would have been a psychological setback for him. Besides, his parents thought that a school for the blind would not provide enough skills for his future life.

After school, he was accepted by the Shevchenko University where he majored in history. When he was into his second year of studies, he married Svitlana, another sophomore from the same department, who had no problems with the eyesight. She had no disabilities and her love for the talented blind student was stronger than the voice of bias and commonplace reason.

In spite of an uncertain future, her husbands handicap proved to be of no obstacle for Svitlana to go ahead and have three children by him.

Volodymyr proved to be an excellent student indeed and graduated summa cum laude.

The economic situation in Ukraine in the 1990s was very tough, the Petrovskys lost their jobs and there did not seem to be any prospects for finding new jobs in their line of work. They were by far not alone in finding themselves in dire straits, and the fund that they had founded appeared to be a good starting point for looking for a way out of a difficult situation.

Volodymyr is full of ideas and inspires others around him to have these ideas put into practice. Svitlana is an excellent manager; all sorts of organizational and logistical matters are also her responsibility. As far as energy is concerned, she is a full match for her husband.

In spite of all the difficulties, the fund survived and in 2005, it was reorganized into a non-profit organization, Vseukrayinska profspilka pratsezdatnykh invalidiv (VPPI; All-Ukraine Labor Union of the Physically Handicapped Who Are Able to Work).

The Union unites people with all kinds of handicaps, not only the blind. It was tourism that was chosen to be one of the new paths for the physically disabled people.

Tourism seems to be an activity which is off limits to the blind people or those who are confined to wheel chairs, but Svitlana Petrovska thought different. She began to organize sightseeing tours of Kyiv for people in wheel chairs and for those who had problems with hearing. Guiding such tours, she developed new techniques which made it possible for the handicapped people to fully enjoy the tours and get a lot of interesting information into the bargain. Addressing the people with hearing problems, Svitlana made sure she articulated words very carefully so that the tourists could read her lips.

The next step was to organize tours for the blind. It is not enough to provide vivid descriptions it is very important to let the blind touch things for them to get a more comprehensive picture. Svitlana is probably the only guide in the world who can guide tours for practically all the categories of the physically disabled and handicapped people. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Ukraine has awarded her, as well as her husband, an honorific title, Pochesny pratsivnyk turyzmu (Honored Worker of Tourism) for their contribution to the promotion of tourism among the physically disabled.

In 2006, VPPI, jointly with the public organization Zeleny khrest (Green Cross), based in Lviv, organized a tourist event which had had no precedence in the annals of tourism a group of blind and physically disabled people who could move around only in wheel chairs boated down the Dnister River.

The trip lasted for ten days. The tourists did not stay at hotels for the night they pitched tents, made fires, cooked their food, and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. They managed their boats inflatable rubber dinghies fine, though, of course, each boat had, among its crew, a sighted and able-bodied volunteer who accompanied the disabled on their trip.

The unusual tourists were doing fine. It was only in some cases that the crews had to get out of their boats to walk around the obstacles which they would hardly be able to negotiate successfully. They dragged their boats over land by the ancient method of portage.

The sighted described, in graphic detail, to the blind the wonderful views and picturesque sights of the Lands of Ivano-Frankivshchyna, and Ternopilshchyna through which they were passing. The trip brought more than just a great joy to the participants it gave them confidence in themselves and hope for even more exciting things to come.

In 2007, the Petrovskys organized a trip to Poland. The group was made of people with various handicaps; for some of them it was not only their first trip abroad it was the first time ever that they ventured so far from their homes. The travelers were accommodated at a rehabilitation center for the physically disabled and were provided not only with opportunities for having a good time but were also exposed to a considerable amount of culture.

In the summer of 2009, VPPI set up a camp in the vicinity of the village of Pisochne, on the Sea of Azov coast of the Crimea. The place is not among the popular tourist places in the Crimea and the disabled who went there could enjoy a good measure of privacy. The local authorities helped set up the camp. Invitations were given not only to the disabled but to volunteers who might be of help, and to the relatives and friends of the disabled invitees.

Hanna Hrabko, a head of a VPPI department, was put in charge of the camp. Among the volunteers who offered their help were students of the School of Volunteers and of the Kerch Economics and Humanities Institute.

The blind and the disabled in the camp did most of what had to be done by themselves, without turning for help, unless such help was absolutely needed.

To make it easier for the blind to orient themselves as they moved around the camp, Volodymyr Petrovsky suggested that the paths be covered with a layer of small sea shells, large deposits of which could be found in the vicinity. The shells crunched underfoot thus showing the way.

The vacationers gathered around bonfires at night, played guitars and sang songs. If an able-bodied stranger had found himself by chance in the camp after dark, he would never have guessed that all those merry-making people sitting around the fire were either blind or otherwise severely handicapped.

There are daredevils among the disabled too. Five blind people decided they wanted to put themselves to the test and they chose a parachute jump for their ultimate test. They also thought it should be a special day too, and they picked the Day of Independence, August 24, as the time for their stunt.

It took several months of training to get ready for the jump. Besides, though splashing down on the water rather than landing on the ground provided an additional degree of safety, it also presented some complications in training splashing down is considered to be more complicated in some respects than landing on the ground.

But the magnificent five were not to be intimated.

They were: Volodymyr Petrovsky from Kyiv, mastermind of the parachute jump project; Mykola Matsko from Novovolynsk, Volyn; Volodymyr Noskov from Kharkiv, Lemur Kiradzhiyev from Bakhchisaray, Crimea and Alla Polyukhovych from Simferopol, Crimea. One of the parachutists, Volodymyr Noskov is a journalist who works for the Radio Era and Radio Svoboda and he provided media coverage; he was also instrumental in carrying out the project.

Alla is a psychologist, and the others are an athlete, a historian and a lawyer. Alla provided a very helpful psychological support by the mere fact of being a woman.

Imagine you take a jump into space without seeing where you will land, without being able to accurately assess the distance you will have to fly. A stunt like that does take a lot of nerve and excellent physical fitness to perform.

The plane took the parachutists to an altitude of about 400 meters (about 1200 feet). The parachutists jumped with no instructors joining them.

Svitlana Petrovsky and other sighted rescuers watched the parachutists descend from the sky and hit the water. Svitlana admitted later that she was tensed up, but everything ended without any mishaps or injuries.

Only a few of those who watched the descent of the parachutists and their splashing down from the beach in Koktebel in eastern Crimea were aware that the parachutists were blind. The cheers became thunderous when the word spread that all the five parachutists were blind.

There are many projects waiting to be carried out. The parachute jump was only a beginning, Volodymyr says. elimbing, boating, hiking are on the agenda. The number of people who have been excited and encouraged to learn about such things as the parachute jump is increasing. They telephone us and ask how they could help or participate. Confidence in what the disabled can actually do is on the rise.

Volodymyr Petrovsky, Volodymyr Noskov and Olena Fedorova have already achieved another breakthrough they went to the Carpathian Mountains to do some skiing there! No, it was not a high hill that they chose to go down from but it was a hill all the same not a flat stretch of land! They also tobogganed and joined the locals in the Christmas celebrations, all of it in the hospitable village of Chornohuzy in Chernivtsi Oblast, Western Ukraine.

We are pushing the envelope of what has been traditionally thought possible for the blind and the disabled, and the number of those who join us in our efforts and support us is growing, said Volodymyr Petrovsky.

There have been blind singers of great fame Ray Charles, or Stevie Wonder, for example. Why not blind astronauts some time soon?

 

The blind journalist Volodymyr Noskov takes a parachute jump and lands in the water. August 24 2009.

 

Boating down the Dnister. August 2006.

 

At a sightseeing tour in Feodosiya, Crimea. August 2009.

 

Volodymyr Noskov in the Museum of Aviation History. Koktebel, Crimea. Summer 2009.

 

 

 

 

Volodymyr Petrovsky and his wife Svitlana. Crimea, 2009.

 

Taking a plunge at the waterfall Dzhuryn.

 

 

Contact information

65 Vasylkivska Str., Kyiv, Ukraine

Tel.: + 380 44 223-1329

volodimir@integratzia.org.ua

vppi@integratzia.org.ua

 

Photos by Svitlana Petrovska and from VPPI archives

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