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Congratulations, Harris and Svetlana!

NCDD member Harris Sussman, of Somerville, Massachusetts, recently won an award with his wife Svetlana.  Harris and Svetlana won the Bay State Council of the Blind Outstanding Service Award “in recognition of their determination and dedication to providing materials and opportunities for people who are blind in Russia through their establishment of the M.N. Adamov Memorial Fund and their personal commitment to independence for people who are blind.” Congratulations, you two!

Bay State Council of the Blind Outstanding Service Award presented to Svetlana Sussman & Harris Sussman “In recognition of their determination and dedication to providing materials and opportunities for people who are blind in Russia through their establishment of the M.N. Adamov Memorial Fund and their personal commitment to independence for people who are blind.” Natick, Massachusetts March 28, 2009

Though I grew up with a blind father, I discovered I knew very little about the ways that one can help and support the blind. This project has been a journey of learning and discovery supported by encounters with many generous people and organizations which have been inspirational and who have given moral support and helped us on our way—the list is long but I don’t want to turn this into one of those award shows…

I’m really impressed that you are giving us an award for several reasons. For one thing, we are not wealthy or people of means by any means. Thank goodness Svetlana has a full-time day job because I don’t. Second, we have been trying to assist blind people for only a little less than four years. Third, we do not represent an elaborate bureaucratic organization–it’s pretty much the two of us, working off the top of our ping pong table. And then of course there’s the fact that the blind people we are trying to help are in another country, at least 8 time zones away, who speak another language, in a difficult and unhelpful political and legal system, with official hostility toward international assistance, and the usual cultural prejudice toward people who are considered invalids.

This is personal for us. Svetlana’s father was blind. At first we thought we would find many groups working on behalf of blind people in Russia and we could pitch in a little. We didn’t find anyone else. Orbis International, the Seva Foundation, Helen Keller International, the World Jewish Council, Lighthouse International, Unite for Sight, Ashoka, Lions Clubs, Sight Savers International—they all have programs and activity in many countries around the world, but not in Russia. There’s a big blank space on the map. Much to our surprise, it looks like we’re it.

In the beginning, Svetlana thought we might help 1 or 2 people as a tribute to her father. So far, we have directly assisted about 300 people and indirectly a few hundred more. We have met many of them. We have been able to do some small and simple things which have made a difference in their lives, thanks to financial contributions from several dozen people who have given donations to the MN Adamov Memorial Fund.

We were in St. Petersburg, Russia last month. (We didn’t go in 2008 because we couldn’t afford the airfare.) A blind staff member of a rehabilitation center mentioned that she had been asking the director for two years for reflective safety vests for walking with their clients out around the city. I thought, I’m sure we could help with that. That night we looked up stores that sell work clothes on the computer, phoned one the next morning, went on the subway an hour each way, ordered three bright orange vests with reflective silver stripes for $7 each, then went back to pick them up two days later and took them to the woman at the rehabilitation center, an hour each way. “It’s a miracle,” she said.

We would like to see Russia move from Third World to World Class in disability and medical rights, services, and resources, in equal access and opportunity, and in conferring independence and dignity on people who are blind. But that’s not happening yet. Guess what? Social services from the All-Russia Association of the Blind are being cut back and some of their jobs are being eliminated.

With the assistance of a few other travelers from Boston, we have hand-carried 35 used computers and more than 175 folding white canes. We don’t ship things, we’ve never paid a bribe, nothing has been confiscated or lost or stolen. We don’t promise more than we can do, and we do what we can. People have learned they can ask us for things that are not available in Russia or that are too expensive for them to buy. We support blind students to finish their studies and give them digital voice recorders to record class lectures. We support highly-skilled teachers of blind children who are paid less than $100 a month and cannot buy developmental toys or classroom supplies, miniature exercise equipment and musical instruments. We support a small core group of older blind people who knew Svetlana’s father who are in formal and informal leadership roles helping other blind people, though we are concerned about the next generation of political appointees when our friends retire. We have put people in touch with each other, within the city and between Russia and America. We arranged for six undergraduates from Duke University to do volunteer work with a center for the blind last summer. Svetlana coached the director about dealing with teenage American volunteers. More Duke students are going this summer.

We want to influence an improvement in guide dog training—the dogs are not trained to go on escalators, which is the only way to get to the subway. We want to provide one thousand more white canes this year. Blind people have to submit to numerous approvals and reviews to get a cane, which can take a year or more; the canes are all the same length no matter how tall or short you are, and they keep bending and breaking. We want to facilitate some O&M training of trainers—we have not found a single trained mobility instructor in St. Petersburg, where 11,000 people are registered to use the local library for the blind. But I’ve never met someone from St. Petersburg who can recall ever seeing a blind person in public. So my fantasy is to have 11,000 people using graphite reflective folding white canes going down the sidewalks of the main boulevard, so nobody can say they’ve never seen a blind person. Or as one person told Svetlana last week, it seems sighted people in Russia are more blind than the blind. Thank you so much for this kind recognition.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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