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Europe Without Barriers - 100th Anniversary of the Society for the Care of the Blind

Despite the progress of medicine, babies continue to be born blind and people lose vision due to various medical conditions and accidents. According to the data from the Central Statistical Office over 1.8 million people are disabled because of damage of their organ of sight or eye diseases in Poland. The visually impaired constitute a highly diversified group, which spans children, youth, adults and seniors. There are people, among them, who were born blind or partially sighted and who have lost vision in adulthood. Some of them cannot see anything, while others have a sense of light or can see the world blurred. The partially sighted include individuals who can see the world as through fog, and those who can see it in fragments. Some people suffer from a central scotoma and can only see objects in the periphery, while others have a narrower field of vision and see as through a telescope or a keyhole. The visually impaired can continue an independent life and remain active despite such severe difficulties, but it is necessary for the people who live around them to be aware of the limitations of the visually impaired as well as to support them effectively.

Those who have lost vision, but also their relatives, need assistance in finding themselves in a new situation. They need training how to be self-reliant at home, at work and during travelling; and also how to be socially active. This assistance requires comprehensive solutions. We also need to seek actively that the visually impaired are properly seen by others.

For example, with regard to young children, care should be taken to ensure that they play with adequate rehabilitation toys facilitating their development. And while the parents try to restore or save their child’s remaining vision, they should not neglect other very important aspects of the child’s life such as education, rehabilitation and general development. Aid must be provided not only to a blind child, but to his or her usually fully fit parents as well. More questions arise as a visually impaired child is growing up. What school should he or she go to - mainstream or special? What textbooks should the child use - in Braille or in large print? What should teachers know about educating a blind or partially sighted child? These issues require professional help and counselling.

Naturally, a different kind of support is expected by teenagers with blindness as they face dilemmas regarding career planning, choosing a field of study, or generally, pursuing their way of life. Thus, young people expect suggestions how they can organize themselves in order to help one another effectively; how to share experience or pass on some advice on solving a given problem in the fastest, cheapest and best way.

Adults face yet other problems. They struggle to find a new job or keep the one they already have. Generally, they make an effort to get money to support themselves. The employment rate among professionally active people does not exceed 18 per cent. Most of them work as masseurs, physiotherapists and administrative office workers.

It is also crucial to help a visually impaired person to master the basic life skills such as travelling and walking safely with a white cane on his or her own or keeping the house. The partially sighted should be taught how to make the most of their remaining vision and use optical aid devices such as magnifiers and telescopes, as well as the right light and clearly differentiated and contrasted colours. Both the individuals with blindness and those who have low vision learn such skills via group and individual training.

The elderly constitute yet another category. Those people primarily need ordinary life care, professional assistance with everyday matters, and sometimes just the presence of another person. The Polish Association of the Blind manages three social-aid houses for visually impaired elderly people.

If we want to live our lives to the full, it is not enough to satisfy only the basic life needs. Blind and partially sighted people, like anyone else, need access to culture, knowledge, and the latest information. Modern technology enables people with impaired vision to use the computer and the Internet.

Both non-sighted and partially sighted individuals try hand at such artistic disciplines as reciting, theatre, music, singing, sculpture, and painting in the case of the latter group.

The year 2011 marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Polish Association of the Blind - the biggest organization accepting only members from the blind and the partially sighted community.

The Polish Association of the Blind (PZN) is one of 5000 nongovernmental, public benefit organizations registered in Poland. Because of the number of its members, it is the most representative association of blind and partially sighted people.

PZN is a self-help organization, established by the blind, acting for the benefit of this group and managed by them. It conducts a broad activity for the benefit of people who are socially excluded because of loss of vision.

Małgorzata Pacholec
Director of the Polish Association of the Blind