Walking in Another`s Shoes

   After our fears, assumptions and habitual ways of working were fully exposed and challenged to transform, in just eight days we felt like we had reached a point where we felt ready to step into the shoes of those visually impaired or had other special needs.  However before we went any further, our concentration, focus and discipline had to be challenged.  Lying on each other`s stomach the first person at the end of the line was asked to give one "Ha" the next two "Ha-Ha" and so on.  Feeling the contractions of each other`s stomach muscles before the "Ha" reached us, made it difficult to keep the giggles at bay as they rippled through the connected human chain, we kept on having to start again, so we changed direction and used our sheer will and focus until we made it to the end.  We were given a presentation on Universal Design which took us through the details of special marks on the roads, pavements and crossings for people who were visually impaired.  These markings were relatively new to Latvia, but in Austria and UK, I had taken them for granted. Through this presentation, I was able to see how important and for what usage these markings are.
In the following challenge we were shown a variety of tools, some of which were used for writing braille.  We were shown by an expert how to write braille who was himself visually impaired and then given the tools to try ourselves. Punching in the tiny holes through a grid wasn`t the easiest way to write.  Gone were the flowing lines of handwriting with a fountain pen. The letters had to be read the other way round, before punching the dots with what seemed like a small screw-driver into the card.  Our visually impaired trainer tested our competence by reading our attempted braille left to right.  There was joy when we heard the  words that we had written being spoken as ran his fingers over the card.  Realising  how difficult writing braille is, I admired the skill one needed to develop in order to communicate in this written language.  
   Our following challenge was to try walking around the guest house, with glasses that gave varying degrees sight.  Some of us couldn`t see at all, others had partial sight.  We each took a white cane and attempted to walk around the building.  I had glasses where I could differences in light, so I could identify when the building was near, but could not make out what the building or any other object was.  It felt like I was constantly looking for something that I could never find, which was frustrating.  So, a couple of times I closed my eyes so that I could not see at all.  It was less frustrating to cut out all my sight than to have partial sight, but more difficult to find my way.  One of the participants, Adrian could not find his way at all and went off in the wrong direction.  Once he had been put on the right track he crashed into another, Orsi who was completely blind.  They held hands and tried to help each other despite neither being able to see.  Following them with my camera, I was able to see that it was easier for them once they were guiding each other, even though it was literally the blind leading the blind.  Adrian had asked "Orsi, can you see"?  "Not at all" she had responded and yet they were better off guiding each other than being alone.  Partnering up with other participants, we were given a variety of challenges that seemed difficult despite them being every day simple tasks.  Brushing teeth and eating yoghurt could no longer be done alone, we needed our partner to help us.  Drawing a picture, without sight or trying to understand someone else through lip-reading was a slow process that needed patience from both sides.  One of things I found most difficult was not being able to express myself when asked questions such as "Do you like ice-cream"? "Or would you like to go to the theatre tonight"?  All I could do was move my eyes for either a yes or no.  The interaction seemed too fast and superficial. 
    In the afternoon we had to plan and prepare for the next couple of days that would be challenging us to work with people with special needs.  Each of us had a small group with which to work with.  So we divided into groups of five with one Latvian in the group, to take us through translation issues.  We found creative painting and craft ideas, inspired by our training tasks so that we could give a two hours participatory workshop.  We decided to give our workshop an Autumn theme.  After doing some research on different activities we prepared well and made a fixed structure with leaders for each task.  On the way to dinner we gathered amber, yellow and ruddy red leaves from Lenka`s grounds and felt hopeful for the following day.   
   Arriving early on a huge charted bus into Liepāja we left our coats in the principle`s office and found our way into our groups.  As we got into a circle holding the colourful parachute at each side ready to run underneath and change sides as the colours were called out, one of our participants got excited and started waving his hands and shouting, suddenly he embraced me and put his head on my shoulder then pushed me away.  We carried on with the activity with the others hoping that he would see how much others were enjoying it, but he heard music from another room and wandered into a room full of sound.  We had other musical participants in the group. One, who had enjoyed our craft activities of making animals from leaves and paper plate masks, wanted to play us his guitar as we carried on painting with the others.  Luckily Jake in our group, joined in with him, with his air guitar and energetic bursts of enthusiasm. For the getting to know each other activities we had imported one from our training by drawing each other on balloons.  These balloons doubled up into football balloon when one participant didn`t want to join in with the craft activities.  Taking a huge sheet of paper that we had brought we drew a tree with branches, ready to stick leaves and finger painted foliage upon.  However, they wanted to draw their own tree, so we had trees coming from trees and a myriad of branches entwined with each other.  We were hesitant to take out a small box of paints and try finger painting with them, but I´m glad we did.  As soon as I modeled to one of the participants, she followed suit by dipping her fingers into the paint and imprinting the marbled colours upon the spindly, black branches. Her eyes looked up to me in glee.  She inspected the swirling effect on her fingers and, as I did revelled in being allowed to get your hands into the paint as thick as hot molten wax.  Wanting to communicate with her I kept asking how to say what is your name in Latvian and a few chosen words, but we soon established a communication with the eyes and hands, I felt comfortable with her and enjoyed painting and creating a mask with her.  It was clear that each needed one on
one attention, that was interchangable with different team members.  Our structure was prepared so as that we could improvise what order we could do the activities in. Having a good structure allowed us to leave and go back to tasks following the participants length of attention and interest for each one.  Washing my hands of paint nearing the end of the workshop, I met Nika from my team who walked in with leaves in her hair like flowers in spring, "I´m having a blast" she beamed and almost skipped off looking like a forest elf.  Throughout the workshop there was a sense of acceptance of each other which made the atmosphere in the room creative and active.  Time flew and before we knew it, we were in the town hall in Liepāja eating our lunch with faces of 'important' bearded statesmen staring at us from aging photographs and paintings.  As we ate as a mass of people in a mahogany clad hall in almost complete silence, each of us
in our own reflective thoughts, I suddenly imagined, those people with special needs,  staring down at us with those same expressions. "Just imagine if everything was turned around" I told Jake who had been in the same teamTentatively, I proceeded, in case he thought I´d gone mad.  "If in fact they are accepted fully by society and we are the ones that have special needs" He smiled. Reassured that he didn`t think I had lost it completely, I continued "You know, what if actually they were the ones with more sense, instead of these hierarchies upon the walls".  Why should they be excluded from participating in every part of society? I thought, munching on my salad.

From 10th until 21st of October, Jessica White and Jake Street, Art Education Facilitators at Thinc participated in "Include your will power – step 2". A training course hosted by Child and youth union "Liepajas Jaunie Vanagi", supported by Thinc and EU Youth in Action Training.
Photos by: Children and Youth Union  Liepāja, Latvia.