Article by Harris Sussman
June 19, 2006
We didn't set out to be the only (and therefore the largest and the best and the most significant) project in the United States devoted solely to helping talented blind people in Russia, but it looks like that's what we are, a year and a few months after starting up. We set out to give some form to our remembrance of my father-in-law, in our mourning, a memorial, a tribute to his life and living. Moisey Naumovich Adamov was blind since the age of two. He became a professor first of mathematics then of quantum physics at St. Petersburg State University in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he taught and advised students for 57 years until his death in February 2005 at the age of 84 in a country where men's life expectancy has recently been as low as 56.
His specialty was the polarizability of molecules and he was the author or coauthor of more than one hundred papers that I can't read, not only because they're in Russian but also because they're in math equations as much as in words.
At her father's memorial service my wife Svetlana recognized some of her father's friends and colleagues who are blind, and met some others she did not know. As she talked to them, as they spoke about Moisey, she was acutely aware of how her father had been a vital figure in their lives, listening, advising, networking, mentoring, cheering them up and on. There was now a void for them and in the social fabric of the city. And simultaneously, as bad luck would have it, government social policy was withdrawing aid to blind people, services that had been available to them were disappearing, and blind people were marginalied to an even greater degree than before in an increasingly aggressive and unfriendly economic climate.
There were fewer job opportunities for remarkably capable blind people who are called invalids. There were fewer educational opportunities and resources in the system called defectology. There were fewer support benefits as previously free services were monetized. There were scarcely subsistence-level pensions to people with disabilities. There were no special accommodations, assistive technology, white canes, guide dogs, or audible traffic signals. Blind people--children, students, scientists, musicians, artists--were being left to fend for themselves, lucky if they had a caring family, unlucky if they didn't.
We decided we could help some people by putting them in touch with each other and with outsiders, performing the kind of connective links that Moisey had provided. We met a kindergarten teacher of a class of blind children. She was at the top of the salary scale, getting $250 a month. She was spending $70 a month of that to buy toys and materials for her students and her father was making adaptive devices for them. We said we would pick up the $70 a month. Then we found a group of American nurses who gave $300 for her to get some child-size exercise equipment built. Then we found a blind American woman who runs her own adaptive technology service for blind clients who took over our $70 a month stipend.
Our son put up a website that meets the standards for being usable by blind people. We asked a local university to let us have some used computers they were deactivating and we took them to a Braille printing house in St. Petersburg the next time we went. We asked Lufthansa to let us take a computer as an extra piece of personal baggage in the name of humanitarian assistance. We ask people going to St. Petersburg to take a used computer, or laptop, or Braille device, with them. We contacted American universities who send students to study Russian in St. Petersburg and asked them to take some toys for blind children. We asked Ray Kurzweil to donate a copy of his company's software for blind users. We asked the Carroll Center for the Blind to be our tax-exempt fiscal agent for people who wanted to give tax-deductible contributions.
We have been moving outward from the people who knew Svetlana's father to people they know. We've been told there are 13,000 blind people in St. Petersburg, 58 blind university students. It is said that there are 300,000 blind people in Russia. We're helping one person at a time, through personal contact, expanding the circle, building a network and a community of awareness, assistance and connection.