Visually impaired in Romania are facing not only the difficulties with their own disability, but also could find hard to live their life as normal people due to the lack of infrastructure in the city or due to the others’ old-fashioned, refractory mentalities, so few of them find a friendly environment outside their house, on the street, not to mention the discomfort in having a social life or a job.
However, things start to change, even if “inch by inch”. Due to the some private initiatives or to the NGOs involvement and amid fast growing technological progress, there are more and more things at hand for the people with visual disabilities. One of these initiatives belongs to AMAis, an NGO militating for the increase of social insertion among disadvantaged people, whose latest project, Urban Mobility Club, is precisely meeting the visually impaired half way, by providing them with spatial orientation and by helping them get out of their shell from home and interact and integrate in the outside world. We spoke with Iris Popescu, AMAis president and project manager, with Alexandru Cucu, workshop coordinator and with Andreea Nechifor, communication coordinator to have a more thorough glimpse on this project.
Iris Popescu explained to us the goal and the working methods of the project.
The Urban Mobility Club is the first such project related to the visually impaired in Romania. What are its goal and its working methods?
The project’s goal consists in increasing the urban mobility of the visually impaired people by supporting them to develop abilities of spatial orientation. This is a must in order to be able to speak about a real inclusion. In this order, the project aims to create the first club dedicated to people with visual deficiencies with activities of interest to able-bodied people as well. The idea of having a club is more than offering a place where people would stay together, it is the first step towards fighting the self-isolation phenomenon experienced by people with visual disabilities in Romania. Moreover, the club will promote a “share to share” model of working with people with visual deficiencies by supporting them to stay focused more on what they can do in their best way and not on what they cannot do. This approach will be possible by giving them the opportunity to teach each other, to share knowledge and their best abilities. Basically, it will work as a skill sharing community where we can learn from one another how we can handle an unfriendly city like Bucharest through workshops like: architecture, urban planning, technology, legal, classical mobility, alternative mobility, etc. We will also offer some learning instruments for a better understanding of the subject: 10 tactile maps of the city, computer, scanner, accessibility software etc.
To whom is addressed, besides the visually impaired persons?
The club is initially addressed to people with visual disabilities, but also abled-bodied ones. Besides the skill sharing objective, it is also a good place to get to know each other and create a connection between what today we might actually call “two separate worlds”. Our target groups include professionals from different areas which have a direct impact on urban mobility: architecture, design, urban planning, psychology, public administration, etc. Their contact with the club will work as a great empathy exercise and hopefully will convince them to take into consideration the subject of accessibility from now on.
Why such a club is needed, what feedback do you expect? Bucharest is rather a unfriendly city for its residents, with many administrative problems still unsolved (road infrastructure, parking, etc), with Bucharesters being impoverished by their day-to-day problems, do you think there is potential for a raising awareness campaign on this topic?
The participants’ feedback has been great until now, but I must admit, we have just started. We have one small problem, the fact that able-bodied people are not as attracted to join the club as people with disabilities, but we are working on this. It is a necessary place in Bucharest, because it is a small step towards creating a sense of community and social responsibility by actually creating new friendships. When you get to know somebody, you start to care about their problems too. Thus, the raising awareness part will come gradually and naturally, as the club will have more and more members who interact.
How many visually impaired persons are reported in Bucharest? Do you have figures countrywide?
According to the data provided by the National Authority for People with Disabilities (ANPD – dec. 2015): there are 5,816 people with visual disabilities in Bucharest, and 102,432 spread all over the country. This data may not be the real number because, as far as I know, ANPD doesn’t have the real numbers regarding children.
Which are the ten tactile maps of Bucharest, what areas of the city they are covering and how they will be implemented?
Not all 10 tactile maps have been decided, yet. It is a work in progress and we are using a participatory approach. Given that we are talking about just 10 maps, we want them to be as useful as possible for the beneficiaries so we are still collecting feedback on what would be the most helpful to understand this city. We will start, for the urban planning workshop, with four maps. We realized that in order to understand the size of Bucharest you need a fixed landmark to compare it to, especially when it comes to somebody who is not used to reading maps. Thus, we will take it step by step: first a redone map of the space La Firul Ierbii, first step into learning how to use a map because you can actually experience what you feel in the model. The next one is a map of the surrounding area and the path we usually follow at the workshops, again so that you could create a mental connection between what you feel on the map and what you experiment in real life, but on a bigger scale. In this we will create a landmark (Timpuri Noi area) which is big enough to be represented in a map of the whole city, without making a huge map. The other two maps will be of the whole city: one in which we will divide the city in neighborhoods and one on which the participants will be able to locate the area they live in, in relation to La Firul Ierbii. After this Urban Planning Workshop we will decide which are the next 6 models.
Have you had a foreign similar project that inspired you or it’s a “local” idea? As far as you know, are there such projects abroad and how are they working?
I know one similar project in Switzerland which was a kind of technology school for the blind, a place where you could learn how to use a smartphone, a computer etc. There are activities like this even here in Romania, done by the Romanian Blind Association. I haven’t heard or read of a club similar to ours, a skill sharing community where we learn one from another how to manage our day to day lives in an unfriendly built environment, but this might be because in most cities around the world it is not needed…
Alexandru Cucu, himself a visually impaired person is a visible proof that such initiatives are worthwhile, being now workshop coordinator.
What is the aim of these workshops within the Urban Mobility Club project and what they involve?
The aim of the workshops, talking long term, is to increase the number of visually impaired people leading an independent life relying on abilities acquired and developed in time and also on the support of Bucharest community, “normal people” we invite to the club to experience, observe and become part of the change. The workshops invite all participants to work on their own self and also alongside others, to discover and train the senses that are often overwhelmed by the visual one. We are looking at urban mobility as a whole, the workshops cover key points like classic and alternative mobility, technology, urbanism, architecture and professional mobility.
Among the workshops’ intentions, you mention the IT solutions for orientation in the urban area. Are they just proposals, theoretically exposed, or they already exist in practice? Because I was curious if they do exist, what are these IT solutions and how they can be enforced in Bucharest?
IT solutions are always developing, these assistive technologies help visually impaired people gain access to information and guidance, that would otherwise be off limits. A good example are the applications that can be connected through Bluetooth devices strategically placed around Bucharest to offer guidance to blind people heading for a destination like a subway or bus station, the theatre, a public institution and so on. The application connects to the device and sends the user a voice message with directions to reach the destination and information about the obstacle ahead like stairs. In Bucharest, we already have a few such solutions implemented mostly by NGOs through private funding, there is the Tandem application for the subway that I find very useful and the pedestrian GPS, along with other application like Google Maps and Moovit, they all use technology to reveal the city to us. Also, smart phones are just as useful to us as they are to you, with the help of screen readers all elements are verbalised and we have access to information, but the challenge is teaching blind people how to use them and the technology workshops at CMU Senseability are a great place to start.
How can the workshops really help the visually impaired? Do they only help them manage for themselves while outdoors or also get a job, networking, etc?
The workshops help the visually impaired by offering them access to information, tools and skills they can develop in order to have an independent life and everything that comes with it – friends, a job, hobbies and so on. At CMU Senseability learning is based on sharing, experimenting together and creating meaningful connections, participants can learn valuable lessons from the trainers, some of them are visually impaired people with an independent life, such as myself, and the message we are trying to send is: Give yourself a chance! CMU Senseability is a great place for networking, allowing visually impaired people to interact and make new friends to explore the city with, so far social activities included the theatre, concerts and multi-sensory exhibitions.
Tell us a few personal experiences and stories from the workshops that have already taken place.
It was amazing to see real changes from the very first workshops, one young adult in particular with a natural fear to communicate and interact outside of his comfort zone, basically parents and close relatives on whom he depends, opening up and sharing his story once he realized we are all there together to develop and create a future city all for. The very next day he was a different person, eager to learn and experience and has attended all workshops since.
When I had my workshop on echolocation I noticed a lot of abilities blind people use instinctively and with training they can become reliable in everyday life. The progress is mostly visible during the practical activities we have outside, exploring the area Timpuri Noi for now.
I presume it’s hard to work with any disabled person. What is the toughest challenge though? And what about the others’ (ordinary people) perceptions and prejudices towards the people who can’t see. Are Romanians open to understand these problems, and most of all, are they interested in getting involved and really help?
The answer is yes, Romanian people want to help, especially those from large cities are more open, but they often don’t know how to actually help and we receive verbal guidance in the form of “the other left”. Using the interaction at the workshops we are trying to influence communication and approach of visually impaired people and offer typical participants examples of how to get involved and really help. Our message is always a positive one, our participants are not isolated due to their disabilities but rather by our lack of ability, as a society, to include and celebrate diversity. We need to understand we are all humans and have the same needs and desired as we all share abilities and disabilities.
Working with people with disabilities is not that hard, I’ve been working with myself for many years and I can say that there are solutions to every problem. The most difficult thing is to convince parents that their kids with visual disabilities need to be taught independent living and treated like normal kids, without being overprotective.
According to Andreea Nechifor, the communication coordinator of the project, anyone can put his/her shoulder to the wheel, by supporting the project, which is a starting point for similar initiatives countrywide.
Talking about involvement and sharing, how can anyone support the CMU, in one word, how can we help you?
You can support CMU Senseability by giving something very valuable – a bit of your time. You can use this time however you wish – to attend the workshops, explore your senses and get valuable insights about the needs of this vulnerable social category; to share our materials online and help us send a powerful message of social inclusion or to take a few minutes to make a donation to help us further develop the project of urban mobility for the visually impaired. We appreciate all kind of support, the best thing about the club is that everyone plays a part in creating a city accessible to all.
And talking about support, we would like to thank the Romania Journal for taking the time to attend our events and experiments and write about our campaigns, your help is most appreciated in giving a voice to a future inclusive city where diversity matters.
I understand it’s a project confined to Bucharest. There are plans to expand it in other Romanian cities?
Bucharest is indeed the starting point for the project of urban mobility but the wonderful thing about the club is that it can easily be implemented in other Romanian cities. Our goal is to provide an example of good practice and offer authorities and experts a model they can develop all over the country. We are currently trying to reach local authorities dealing with people with disabilities to promote the workshops among young adults that live isolated in Bucharest due to visual disabilities and also to attract more specialists to the workshops – architects, designers, trainers and other professionals that can help create a city accessible to all.
What are the medium and long-term targets of CMU
We are aware we have a long path ahead in giving a voice to visually impaired people living isolated in Bucharest, the first steps have been made with the help of Orange Foundation and all other amazing partners, volunteers and specialists that joined CMU Senseability.
Medium-term, our target is implementing new ways of accessibility through multi-sensory stimulation while promoting the notion of inclusive design, cities for all. Talking long-term, the target is an advocacy campaign to make authorities aware of the imminent need for accessibility in order to reduce the self-isolation phenomenon experienced by those in vulnerable categories.
Does AMAis have other initiatives on this topic in sight?
We are always looking for new partners to develop meaningful projects, but for now the focus is on CMU Senseability and Raspiua, a multi-sensory play space accessible to all kids, again an idea that can be implemented across cities in Romania so regardless of disabilities all kids can play, explore and develop.