Where I’ve Been: My Blindness Work in Central Europe

the Polish flag

Last month, I took a break from my duties at VisionAware.org to visit Central Europe, teach in the post-graduate Low Vision Therapy program at the Akademia Pedagogiki Specjalnej im. Marii Grzegorzewskiej (the Maria Grzegorzewska Academy of Special Education) in Warsaw, and attend a Board of Directors meeting for the Kielce-based VEGA Foundation, directed by my longtime friend and colleague Agnieszka (Agnes) Janicka-Maj.

Some background: From 1996 to 2006, I taught in the Academy’s post-graduate Vision Rehabilitation Therapy and Orientation & Mobility programs as adjunct faculty. I’ve also given workshops throughout Poland at nursing homes for blind adults and have been interviewed on Warsaw radio, along with my good friend Dr. Nina Hummel, director of the Academy’s low vision program.

Teaching at the Academy

My first love has always been teaching, and I was excited to revisit the post-graduate programs at the Academy. The students are serious and are interested to learn more about the international scope of practice in low vision. We discussed writing for professional journals, such as the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness; the latest developments in eye and vision research, including macular degeneration; and thorny professional issues, including the need for certification. Here is my highly-qualified class, paying close attention even on a Sunday afternoon after a four-hour lecture:

My students in the classroom

About the VEGA Foundation

The VEGA Foundation for the Blind and Partially Sighted was established in Kielce, Poland in 2010, in order to address the following critical goals:

  • Facilitating the integration of blind and partially sighted persons into the mainstream of social life;
  • Supporting the development of effective political and other representation;
  • Changing erroneous and stereotypical beliefs about the abilities of the blind and partially sighted;
  • Recommending legal, organizational, and programmatic solutions in the areas of rehabilitation, education, employment, and social assistance.
Rose Maj

There is one important new goal, however, that has been added to the priority list: early diagnosis and intervention services for infants and children. Why this particular goal? Readers, meet Rose Janicka-Maj (at left), age five, daughter of Agnes and her husband Wojtek.

Shortly after birth, Rose was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, an ocular cancer. After enduring several grueling rounds of chemotherapy and consulting with specialists abroad, Rose lost one eye to cancer – but preserved full vision in the other. She has learned to handle her prosthetic eye with care and is a talkative, lively, and beautiful child. Thus my work with (and devotion to) the very worthy, very special VEGA Foundation.

Accessibility in Poland

Most interesting to me, however, was my exploration of the Warsaw Central Railway Station (Warszawa Centralna), a hulking behemoth located in the center of the city, completed in 1975:

the Warsaw Central Railway Station

A long-needed renovation was completed by the Warsaw city government in 2011, which included a number of accessibility features for blind and visually impaired travelers, created in conjunction with the Polish Association of the Blind (Polski Zwiazek Niewidomych).

In the United States, tactile warning systems are mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These tactile warning systems (called tactile paving, truncated domes, detectable warnings, tactile ground surface indicators, and detectable warning surfaces) provide textured ground surface indicators on street crossings, stairs, and train station platforms to assist pedestrians who are blind or visually impaired:

tactile warning system at a street crossing

You can read more about tactile warning systems at ADA Best Practices Tool Kit for State and Local Governments: Curb Ramps and Pedestrian Crossings under Title II of the ADA.

In Poland, however, no such legislation exists. The provision of tactile warning systems is entirely voluntary, which piqued my interest in the cooperative Central Railway Station accessibility project. I was interested to see what the Warsaw city government and the Association for the Blind had created.

This long passageway in the Warsaw station illustrates the “tracks” or rails that comprise the basis of the system. Four parallel steel rails, spaced two inches apart, are embedded in the granite floor tiles:

a long passageway in the Warsaw Train Station

This configuration illustrates the presence of an intersection. The tracks or rails are interrupted by an 18-inch square grid composed of rounded steel truncated domes. The steel rails branch off at right angles to indicate the direction of all potential travel paths:

an intersection in the floor grid

This configuration illustrates the grid arrangement when the traveler approaches stairs. Note the intersection marker, the four potential travel paths, and the line of truncated domes that indicate the presence of stairs:

the grid arrangement when approaching stairs

The system also continues outside the train station. Six parallel “tracks” or rails are embedded in the sidewalk and provide color contrast, which is helpful for travelers with low vision:

On the street: tactile markings and contrasting color

The rails intersect with a square textured grid that indicates where to turn left into the Metro station entrance:

The grid indicates where to turn left into the Metro

Your Comments Are Welcome

I applaud the creativity and persistence that fueled this cooperative project and look forward to its expansion into additional areas of the city. If you would like to share your own accessibility stories and projects, please feel free to use the comments section.