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Pioneering program for the blind in Russia

February 16, 2004

Photo of blindfolded orientation and mobility student Kelly Chadwick learning how to navigate using a white cane with the assistance of classmate Lucy Waite  Thanks to a cutting-edge program designed by a San Francisco State University education professor, blind people in Russia will now have a chance to learn how to travel outside their homes using a white cane.

The partnership between the University and Novosibirsk State University (NSU) in Southwest Siberia began in 2002 as two faculty members from the Russian school arrived at SF State and enrolled in the Orientation and Mobility Teacher Preparation Program through the College of Education.

Their studies included teaching blind people with limited or no vision how to maneuver independently and safely. In various practice exercises, students were blindfolded and given white canes to cross 19th Avenue, take MUNI, ride BART and shop in a department store.

Yana Balachova and Katya Tchoupakhina, both 24, spent the last 16 months in San Francisco as full-time students. Now back at NSU, they plan to start the first-ever university program in Russia to prepare orientation and mobility specialists.

"Through ongoing collaborations between Novosibirsk and the University's O&M program, the future of people with visual impairments in Russia will look brighter than ever," said special education Professor Sandra Rosen, who directs the orientation and mobility program and was the catalyst behind the $300,000 project sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.

Russia has a handful of schools and training centers that teach basic travel skills to blind people although the training provided is not nearly as advanced as in the United States. Balachova and Tchoupakhina hope to change that.

Balachova taught English at the school and Tchoupakhina was a history lecturer and postgraduate student. Each worked as a volunteer in the school's disabled students program and when presented with the opportunity to enter a new field and study in San Francisco they jumped.

They begin teaching the first cohort of orientation and mobility specialists at Novosibirsk in September 2004. NSU is one of the top-rated universities in Russia. Almost an exclusive scientific university during the Soviet period, the school now boasts a wide variety of humanities departments and programs.

"I'm so excited about opening this program," said Balachova, who spent last summer as an intern at Western Blind Rehabilitation Center through the Department of Veterans Affairs in Palo Alto. "People in Russia are waiting for us and the people here at San Francisco State have been so helpful. There are a lot of responsibilities ahead but I know we can do this."

Adds Tchoupakhina, who interned last summer at the Rose Resnick Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco, "I want disabled people in Russia to be integrated in the society, to have normal lives as everyone does and I hope this program will be a step to achieve this. We have great support in the United State and in Russia to do this."

The profession of orientation and mobility specialists first started from a need to rehabilitate blinded veterans returning from World War II and later expanded to include residential school and public school programs for blind and low vision children.

Today, SFSU's program is one of only two at universities in California and one of 15 in the United States. It is internationally known for its training and for innovations in the field. Currently, 35 master's students are enrolled, learning how to teach such orientation skills as using landmarks and sensory cues and guiding someone toward a destination. They also learn how to teach such mobility skills as route travel, street crossings and use of public transportation.

Classes at SF State are held in the evenings and on Saturdays. To learn more about the Orientation and Mobility Program, e-mail or call (415) 338-1245.

-- Christina Holmes


San Francisco State University

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Last modified July 27, 2004 by University Communications