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February 9, 2003

Giving Eyes and Ears to the Blind and Deaf

From: Moscow Times, Russia - 09 Feb 2003

By Andrei Zolotov Jr.
Staff Writer

Vladimir Filonov / MT

Slava Lyubovkin, 29, painting a bright yellow sun on a ceramic plate that will be auctioned off at the Pushkin charity event this Friday.

SERGIYEV POSAD, Moscow Region -- The only way Yana knows it is lunchtime is when the toy plastic plate in the little bag she carries over her shoulder is put into her hands. The 5-year-old is blind and almost completely deaf.

"She used to be unable to do anything," said Natalya Shaboyan, the teaching assistant in charge of Yana and her three classmates at the Sergiyev Posad School for the Deaf and Blind, the world's largest boarding school of its kind. "You don't know how happy we were when she learned to dress herself, eat by herself or make gestures to communicate with us. She is such a sensitive girl."

Yana knows it's time to eat when Shaboyan takes the small plate out of her bag and puts it into her hand for her to feel. When she grows a little older, the toys in her bag will be replaced with a small book whose pages are filled with raised symbols -- a triangle for classes, a flag for physical education, a washing machine for the laundry room, a shovel for the greenhouse, a nail for metals shop, a jar for pottery and a ball or yarn for weaving shop. She will learn to speak -- and understand -- the tactile sign language that students use here, feeling each other's hand signals. Perhaps she will also learn to use her voice.

Yana is one of 170 people living on the school's sprawling 12-hectare, yellow-brick campus in Sergiyev Posad, a town dating back to a 14th-century settlement and located 60 kilometers northeast of Moscow. The youngest resident is 2 years old and the oldest is 44.

"I like to say that there are two jewels in our town: one is the Holy Trinity St. Sergius Monastery and the other is our school," said the school's director, Galina Yepifanova.

Hieromonk Zinon, a priest from the monastery, one of the country's holiest sites, leads specially adapted Orthodox services for students who wish to attend, deputy director Vera Belova said.

She proudly pointed to two little boys who serve as sacristans at the school's chapel and recently won an award in a children's theology contest. "We didn't realize that they would do better than many normal children," she said.

Two graduates, to whom the staff lovingly refers to as "our stars," now study at a teachers college.

But, in part due to an improved survival rate for babies with multiple disabilities, an increasing number of Sergiyev Posad's students also have mental and physical disabilities.

The Soviet education of deaf and blind people started in the 1930s, when professor Ivan Sokolyansky began working with a group in Kharkiv, Ukraine. His efforts produced the Russian answer to American Helen Keller -- researcher and writer Olga Skorokhodova, who wrote poems and earned a doctorate in pedagogy. She died in 1982 at the age of 66.

After World War II, one of Sokolyansky's students, professor Alexander Meshcheryakov, continued his mentor's studies in Moscow and, in 1963, the Sergiyev Posad school was founded in what was then the town of Zagorsk. Although small groups for the blind have been formed recently in schools for the deaf, and the other way around, the Sergiyev Posad campus remains the country's only boarding school of its kind. Due to a lack of public awareness, it is not full. "We would gladly accept another 30 children," Yepifanova said.

Vladimir Filonov / MT

Mansur Rakhimov, 20, feeling a toy camel to get direction to make a copy out of clay.

About 50 of the 170 residents are orphans. Others, like Yana, who is from Astrakhan in southern Russia, have parents who occasionally drop by. Parents who live close enough sometimes take their children home for weekends or holidays. Graduates who have nowhere else to go remain at the campus to work.

All of them are entrusted to the school's staff of 300 teachers, doctors, teaching assistants and nurses, who teach them to speak, understand, read, write, count, draw, sculpt, pray, grow plants, make rugs or -- if nothing else -- make nails. The underlying aim is to teach the students to communicate with others and lead meaningful lives.

Donations cover about 40 percent of the state-owned school's budget, Yepifanova said. Former first lady Naina Yeltsin has helped with fundraising since her first visit in 1998, and similar schools in Germany and the Netherlands have provided assistance.

The school was brought back from the brink of collapse a few years ago by private Russian donors and the Hilton/Perkins Program, administered by Helen Keller's alma mater, the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts, and funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

Dennis Lolli, a regional consultant with the Hilton/Perkins Program, recalled that when he first saw the Sergiyev Posad school in 1996, it was in dire straits. "There has been a lot of change over the past few years," Lolli said, attributing this to Yepifanova's work as director.

After about $100,000 in aid -- including $25,000 worth of hearing aids -- over the past six years, assistance from Perkins these days largely comes in the form of training programs for teachers and teacher exchanges. Lolli said by telephone from Watertown, Massachusetts, that he will visit the school in March with an occupational therapist for a one-week seminar.

Although they evolved a world apart, the Russian and U.S. methodologies of educating deaf and blind people are surprisingly similar, Lolli said. The U.S. system is based on practical situations such as teaching how to cook with communication skills built into each situation, while the Russian and European system is "a little less functional and more classroom oriented," Lolli said.

The bigger issue is how to make education available to more Russian children -- at least 1,200 deaf and blind children live in European Russia alone, Lolli said.

On Friday, a group of the school's Russian donors are to throw a fundraising party at the Pushkin Literary Museum on Ulitsa Prechistenka to raise the school's profile and showcase its students: Several children will sing and their pottery, paintings, rugs and puppets will be exhibited and sold at a charity auction.

The school's workshops are an integral part of the children's education.

"Our main task is to develop the hands, eyes, attention, thinking and memory," Emilia Mosnitskaya, who teaches weaving, said on a recent afternoon. "But we are trying to make the crafts beautiful."

Vladimir Filonov / MT

Arseny Budakov, 6, who is severely vision-impaired, entertaining himself by adjusting his glasses to catch the sun's rays as he waits for the teaching assistant who takes care of his group after classes.

Nearby, a boy embroidered a butterfly on a rug and two others wove a colorful carpet on a small loom.

In the next room, 29-year-old Slava Lyubovkin -- one of the graduates who has stayed on campus after graduation and shares a two-room apartment with another former student -- painted a bright yellow sun on a ceramic plate for the Pushkin auction. He can see a little through his thick glasses, but he relies to a great extent on the relief of the sun on the plate. Next to him, Mansur Rakhimov, who is blind and deaf, put the finishing touches on a clay camel. He picked up a plastic camel every so often for direction.

To a visitor, the school's eight-building campus looks well-off compared to many of the country's crumbling institutions, boasting a 25-meter swimming pool, bright playroom, sophisticated medical equipment and a variety of teaching aids. Thanks to help from Tatyana Shestopalova -- one of the organizers of Friday's charity event -- about 100 children vacation every summer at a Black Sea resort.

State funding has improved over the past two years, Yepifanova said. A presidential program for disabled children has provided funding for new medical equipment. During his most recent visit in December, Labor Minister Alexander Pochinok presented the school with a large television set that it had requested and promised to raise the teachers' salaries. Senior teachers earn about 5,000 rubles ($155) per month, which is higher than the local average. Other staff members make much less.

The problem with state funding, however, is that the school cannot redistribute earmarked funds to more worthy projects. For example, too much money is allocated for food and not enough for gasoline, Yepifanova said.

She said there is a constant shortage of school supplies and clothing. But her biggest headache is the need to completely rebuild an early education building that was damaged by flooding.

"As in any big household, you need one thing today and another thing tomorrow," Yepifanova said. "Any help is appreciated."

For information regarding the charity event at the Pushkin Literary Museum, call 202-4354 or 335-9179.

Ruble donations are welcomed at:


U.S. tax deductible donations earmarked for aid to the Sergiyev Posad School for the Deaf and Blind can be sent to Perkins School for the Blind, 175 North Beacon Street, Watertown, Massachusetts 02472.

© Copyright 2002, The Moscow Times. All Rights Reserved.