Kazakhstan’s Soviet Blindness Community Remembered
(Excerpt from American on Display. Published with the author’s permission.)
Author’s Note: As a freshly graduated journalist, I was privileged to work as a bilingual guide, the only one with a visible disability on “Design USA,” a traveling good-will exhibit to the Soviet public. Though of course none of us knew it then,1990 marked the last full year of the USSR’s existence.
I intend to publish much of the journal I kept during that seven-month experience, including the passage below, in a book called American on Display. Please note that I have left words like “handicapped” and Alma-Ata (now called Almaty) unchanged from the original.
Since the 1991 disintegration of the Soviet Union, most disability-specific factories like the one I describe have gone out of business, leaving those with disabilities largely unemployed. Nor have my years of travel made me aware of any major vocational rehabilitation system in Central or Eastern Europe comparable to those in the west.
While those with disabilities are nominally being given priority in today’s Ukraine, aid is spotty, at best. An international group of social scientists and humanities scholars of disability has put together the list below of credible groups assisting displaced persons with disabilities in the current crisis. If you wish to positively support and provide assistance, please consult the document we compiled and consider sharing with others.
July 18, 1990
My visit yesterday to the Kazakhstan Society for the Blind leaves me with more questions than before, not only about this society, but about my own role as a handicapped person bridging our countries.
“I came here only to see you,” a man said at my stand several days ago. He introduced himself, Sarsen, vice-president of the Society for the Blind of Kazakhstan.
Yesterday at 10:00 sharp, Sarsen met the exhibit directors and me with two big cars and drivers. Our first stop was a blindness production museum. Sarsen told us the society officially began in 1937. After the war, plastic items, serving spoons, checkers, folders etc. came into demand. In 1953 (the year of Stalin’s death), the Society became free of government ties. Today, each of the USSR’s 15 republics has a Society for the Blind. Sarsen said Kazakhstan’s ranks among the strongest, with 17,000 members.
He boasted of frequent international visits including chess and checkers tournaments, with delegations from the Netherlands, Bulgaria, East Germany, and China. I was, they told me, their first American visitor.
“Now we’ll show you the real world where blind people work,” Sarsen invited us onward. Half an hour by car brought us to the town of Tolgar, including Factory #2. The director came out to meet us. Unlike Sarsen, this man was only partially sighted. “You could say we have a monopoly here,” he said good-naturedly. “We produce all the buttons for Kazakhstan, among other things!”
Inside, the smell of melted plastic oozed into our noses as the buzz and pounding of machinery assaulted our ears. 400 of the 700 employees were blind. In the first room worked the sighted, pouring the molds of circles with buttons along the edge, and in the next sections were the blind. With tedious care, they detached each button from its plastic mold, then put on a metal back, smoothed the edges, and finally drilled holes. All this was done mechanically, but the buttons had to be put in place and inspected. In another section, employees tamped plastic waterproofing onto bottle caps and metal onto switch plates. Later, my own sighted exhibit directors told me safety features such as goggles and protection from hot wires used for slicing plastic were absent. But things appeared clean. This factory offered a concert hall, as well as an exercise room full of various equipment: rowers, bicycles, rolling treadmills, vibrating electric belts and the like.
One of the women workers stopped me. “How do your handicapped work?” she asked.
“Unfortunately, most of us don’t work,” I replied, “and when we do, we must compete like everyone else and find a regular job.”
“Really? That’s a shame. “Here we are all together, and we can socialize as we wish.”
“I couldn’t just stay at home. I want to contribute to my family and to my society,” commented a man working beside her. “It’s not about the money. I could live on my pension.”
“I agree,” I said, but my confusion mounted. This factory felt like a reservation, and my US colleagues have commented that people with physical differences hardly ever appear in public. Yet this man and woman seem content.
“Who decides where a blind person will work?” I asked Sarsen once we were outside.
“Doctors look at the person and his abilities. Then they see where he could work best.”
“What about someone who has intelligence plus the desire to use it?”
“We have blind people working as teachers, secretaries, lawyers and now there are some in congress.”
I recalled my fifth-grade struggle to enter public school instead of the school for the blind where I began. “What if parents want to send a blind child to regular school?”
Sarsen paused. “That’s a bit complicated. It’s easier for them in their own schools.” He took my arm. “Actually, let’s show you what our kids have here.”
Like many Soviet workplaces, Factory #2 offers a daycare center for children ages 2-7. Most kids were outside. “We usually have about 140 children, but now it’s summer, so there are fewer,” the day care directress explained. The oniony smell of lunch drifted from the kitchen. Her facilities are open seven to seven on any working day. We visited playrooms well stocked with toys and small beds with big down pillows and quilts in white-starched cotton sheets.
The Directress explained that reading and writing instruction begins here at age five, allowing most children competency in the alphabet by age six or seven, when they start school. Parents are required only to pay for food.
For some reason, we visitors had all expected to see blind children at this center. “Oh, no,” the directress answered my question. “They have their own schools, and much smaller classes, usually about six children.” She clicked her tongue before her next words. “No, all we have are good, normal kids in my school.”
Her final comment struck me like a bullet. “Good, normal kids.” How many times have I heard these words barring me from activities where I longed to participate? My face burned and my throat tightened before I could speak. I sensed a nonverbal exchange with Sarsen. Obviously, this woman hadn’t been coached about what to say, and now it was too late.
I swallowed hard to oil my next words. “But blind children can be good and ‘normal,’ too, can’t they?”
“Oh, yes, of course,” she answered. But I recognized all too well the undertone of ‘but not in my back yard,’ an attitude scoring my entire childhood.
Meanwhile, a man came offering me a box of buttons, every shape and color. When I wanted to pay, Sarsen laughed. “What are you saying? I’m a millionaire!” If not for the preceding conversation, I could have laughed along.
As we ascended the near-by hills before lunch, the air freshened. A few words cleared our passage as we were stopped at a gate along the way. “This is a national nature preserve,” the driver explained. “You need special clearance.”
When we drew up at a resort for blind factory workers, I admired the floral-scented atmosphere and sound of a near-by waterfall. Lunch smelled delicious but wasn’t yet ready. Sarsen seemed displeased.
“In the summer, we have camps for children. We are building a new dorm for 200,” he said.
After a while, several heads of other factories arrived. The table was decked with grapes, blueberries, raspberries, tomatoes, sausage, bread, and the inevitable vodka, champagne, and cognac. As toast after toast was uttered, I blessed my lot as a woman not forced into heavy imbibing in this Central Asian culture.
I took the chance to ask about marriage for the blind. “It happens that a handicapped person and a non-handicapped fall in love, of course, but it is rare,” they said. “I suppose you plan to marry a blind man, too?” I bit back any reply at this presumption.
We talked and ate, and talked some more, and drank, and they tried to talk my directors into staying longer, and they couldn’t, and they had to drink a last toast, and another colleague from our group was chauffeured in, and they admired her beauty and I offered them braille books and calendars from American blind groups, and they accepted, and my directors were finally able to go when I promised to eat double in their place, and, and, and …
“We have resolved questions surrounding the handicapped in opposite ways,” I told Sarsen on our way home. “You have separated them but made them productive all the same. I, on the other hand, have tried as hard as I can to fit into regular society, and to be a ‘normal’ person in that sense. I cannot say which way is better; both are good and bad answers.”
Back at the hotel, I mused on the great good fortune and trust laid upon me, being hired as a cultural ambassador on such an exhibit. But then, why do I feel so separate?
August 1, 1990
I think word about our exhibit having a guide with a disability has gotten out, especially since my visit to the factory. Several blind and sighted guests with disability interests have invited me home. I especially enjoyed an evening with a blind couple, Nadia and Vitali, who have three children. But like my reflections after my visit to the factory, some of my doubts and questions are even larger now than before.
When I called to confirm, each of the kids insisted on talking; “Do you miss home?” “Is it true you have cameras that give you pictures right away?” “Are blind people allowed to marry sighted people in America?”
This family lives in a complex constructed for workers from their factory. The apartment, three rooms for five people, was nicer than many. I learned that the entire family is classified as legally blind, which means that each child up to age sixteen receives a 70-rouble pension a month, (equaling about half the minimum wage). The parents receive larger pensions in addition to their salary. Husband and wife work at a central factory involved in making switches, decorative door nails, etc. In the summer, Nadia can work from home to stay with the children. She earns in accordance with her produce.
I learned that the kids were the ones most insisting on this visit. The resulting conversation with Nadia and Vitali was a bit stilted. But after a few toasts, our hosts relaxed. “The way I see it,” Nadia began, “no handicapped person has a right to complain in this country. Take apartments. Most people have to wait ten or fifteen years, but the blind and other people with handicaps get them in just three years. They’re even promising our family a four-room apartment in three years. And take food. We each receive rations of meat, dairy products, and whatever we want to order. We get this from special stores for the handicapped. Every ten days, they deliver it right to our doors. Just to stand in line for all that meat, I’d need hours and hours.”
As a knock came, the couple greeted their neighbor. “Everything all right?” she asked as the kids joyfully introduced us and I complimented Nadia’s cooking.
“You say many of your handicapped do not work, but all of us have the chance for work and training,” Vitali joined in. “I was born blind and educated in a blind school, and I never doubted I’d have a job.”
Nadia sighed. “I’m only partially sighted because of my own stupidity. We had a class party in the mountains. I was fifteen. I climbed a tree, fell, hit my head, and damaged my optic nerves.”
“That must have been a tough transition,” I commented, recalling many conversations with friends agreeing with me that it’s easier to be born a certain way than having to adapt later on.
“Yes, especially when they said I couldn’t study with my friends anymore. I went to a special school for the visually impaired. I was very afraid I would have to sit at home after that and not work. But here we are, well provided for.”
“As for work,” I asked Nadia, “I’ve heard your society gives the handicapped work that other people don’t want. I’m not saying things are better in America, but do you agree?”
Nadia sounded indignant. “It’s not true we don’t want that work. Our government tries to give us work we are capable of, work that won’t hurt our eyes or over-exert us. And there is the chance for higher education, if you want it.”
Vitali hesitated. “Well, yes, they usually give the sighted preference. It all depends on the opportunities available. I know many of us blind people who are lawyers or teachers. But I know people at our factory with that training who couldn’t get a job.”
When Vitali and Nadia insisted on returning with us to the hotel, our taxi driver refused the fare. “It’s either all or nothing,” I said, meaning as foreigners, they either want to skin us, or host us.
The day before leaving Alma-Ata, I called them to say good-bye. “People hardly can believe we had you foreigners here. It’s the talk of the neighborhood,” Nadia exclaimed. “They say ‘How could you possibly get everything done yourselves?’ But you and I understand each other—that we’re just people, capable people. We do what we want. You’re like my close, dear sister who just lives very far away.”
Hanging up, I replayed the evening. Was it coincidence, the neighbor dropping in, or was she sent to help if they needed her? Did that taxi driver pick us up by chance? I’ll never know.
Has it been worth it? By all indications, this blind family was thriving. Is it because they have accepted the balance of possibilities and obstacles this country offers?
“I want my kids to get higher education,” Vitali said in the taxi when I complimented their curiosity and intelligence. “Then they can be more than just workers.”
I certainly hope so.
Read Elizabeth L. Sammons’ review of Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism in this issue of Wordgathering.
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About the Author
Doctors told Elizabeth Sammons’ parents to institutionalize her at birth; she was blind. Instead, they raised her with a sense of self-respect and wonder, along with a vast selection of books. After graduating with a Master’s degree in journalism from The Ohio State University, she worked with nonprofits and schools in Central Asia, Siberia, and Europe, including service with the Peace Corps. Returning to the U.S. in 2000, Elizabeth pursued a federal and state government career until 2018, when she gave in to living life full-time as a writing artist and an international/disability advocate. Sammons’ writings and research have been featured in Ethics in Journalism, Plough Quarterly, The Columbus Dispatch, Geohistory, and Vision Aware, among others. Her first novel, The Lyra and the Cross, was published in 2019.