This was published in MIT Sloan News on December 10, 2007:
Did You Know...
That Svetlana Sussman and her husband, Harris, have been helping blind people in Russia for the past two years?
Svetlana, Area Officer for Economics, Finance and Accounting at MIT Sloan, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia to scientist parents. Her father, M.N. Adamov, lost his sight at the age of two. He went on to become a respected theoretical physicist and professor of physics at St. Petersburg State University. When he died in February 2005 at the age 84, Svetlana, an only child, wanted to honor his memory and help other blind people in Russia. "My focus had always been my immediate family and my dad," she says. "I don't have anyone else in Russia immediately related to me, but I felt that those resources I had used to help my family could be used to support other people who needed help."
The Sussmans started the M.N. Adamov Memorial Fund, a non-profit organization to support blind students and blind young professionals in Svetlana's home country. Since its inception, the fund has raised approximately $5,000 a year, and sent more than 20 computers, two Perkins Braillers (a "Braille typewriter"), cassette recorders, Braille translation software, art materials and creative toys for young blind children, as well as 20 white canes, and a Braille printer - to the blind in Russia. There are approximately 14,000 blind and severely visually-impaired people in the Leningrad region. The M.N. Adamov Fund is focused on five specific groups: a boarding school/orphanage with more than 280 students; a rehabilitation center that offers employment and life skills training for more than 140 people; the graduates' network from the rehabilitation center; an arts therapy group that works with 80 blind youngsters; and a group of several hundred blind "intellectual" workers, including 150 blind university students.
Svetlana outlines several reasons blind people in Russia need outside assistance. "The transition from a so-called 'communist state' to an emerging capitalist state has created a lot of inequality, and the economic gap is tremendous. People who are disadvantaged by their disability are even more disadvantaged economically. Most of the resources that supported them during the communist era have been taken away from them. The organizations that used to support people with disabilities - particularly the blind - have practically dried up."
It's for this reason that Svetlana hopes the Fund will call attention to the plight of disabled people in Russia - traditionally not a "popular cause." It's also why the Fund pledges to help people with specific needs. Svetlana is explicit in detailing what the Fund needs right now: laptop computers (even if they are outdated); portable tape recorders, art supplies, paper, toys, Braille devices, and even frequent flyer miles, because they are always looking for travelers to Russia to transport these items. Additionally, the Fund would like to enlist volunteers willing to serve as pen pals with blind students, and translators who can translate from Russian to English and vice versa. Finally, the Fund is in need of cash, and donations are tax-deductible, through the Carroll Center for the Blind. To donate, visit www.mnadamovfund.org
Svetlana says Sloan Technology Services has already donated a number of deactivated laptops, and she credits the environment at MIT Sloan where she's been since 1999 with inspiring her to start the Fund. "If I hadn't been here at Sloan, I wouldn't have thought of this," she says. "[The project] is very entrepreneurial and it's global. It's all about social responsibility...without being in this community, I might not have thought of this," she admits.
Since beginning the project, the Sussmans have traveled to St. Petersburg several times to meet with the blind folks they have been assisting. Svetlana says one of the highlights for her was guiding a young blind woman through the State Hermitage Museum, where she was allowed to touch the sculptures for the first time - a new feature for the blind. "I've been to the Hermitage maybe 1,000 times, but I saw it with totally new eyes...and I could experience her discovery," says Svetlana.
Svetlana says one of the biggest misconceptions about the blind is that they cannot use their talents or skills. "My father had been blind since he was 2-years-old, and probably until the time I was a teenager, I didn't believe he was totally blind," she remembers. "He was so capable. I didn't see any disability. I saw a lot of ability. In that sense, that's what excites us, because the people we meet are tremendously talented. They have amazing abilities in many areas," she says.
If anyone would like more information about the M.N. Adamov Fund, e-mail Svetlana at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Amy MacMillan
December 10, 2007