Things improve slowly for the Slovakian blind and partially sighted

I met Stanislav Sokol of the Slovak Blind and Partially Sighted Union (UNSS) at the right moment. September is the most important month of the year for the Union, as far as publicity and fundraising is concerned. More about their work later on in the interview. First, I let Stanislav introduce himself.

‘I am 40 years old and have been partially sighted from birth. My view is neither getting better nor getting any worse. I can see you sitting, am able to orientate myself in the city and wear glasses that are not too stark. I was born in Trencin, a town 120 kilometres from Bratislava. After school, I studied physics at the Comenius University in Bratislava. I’ve been working with UNSS since 2014, with a break of one year. In the first years, I worked as PR-manager and coordinator of our yearly financial collection called the White Pencil. Nowadays, I mainly support my colleagues who manage the collection. I keep the website up-to-date, I am responsible for online donation tools and am involved in other tasks as well, on request.

‘Besides my part time work for UNSS, I also work part time for the Slovak Disability Council where I occupy myself with international projects. I live with a partner who is completely blind and we have a daughter of two years old. In my free time I like to run semi marathons. Personally, I would like to give more support to people with visual impairment with regard to sporting.’

UNSS covers many activities

UNSS was founded in 1990, right after Czechoslovakia had passed through the Velvel Revolution. It was in fact one of the first civic organisations in then Czechoslovakia. During the early years of its existence, the organisation counted approximately 8,000 members. In 2023 some 3,000 are left. Stanislav has a reason for this decline. ‘In the 90’s people tended more to work together to reach their goals. It’s much more difficult to motivate the younger generation to cooperate. They have enough opportunities to integrate into society on their own and thus don’t see a necessity to form a movement.’

The members are blind or partially sighted themselves or are relatives of such a person and gather in 50 different cell organisations throughout the country. These organisations develop activities themselves with support of the UNSS central office. For instance leisure, sports, culture, education and so on. Every member is free to participate and/or propose an activity him- or herself. Because UNSS doesn’t receive direct money from the government, membership fees make some contribution. Each member pays a symbolic sum, which differs each year.

The cell organisations work with volunteers. However, there’s also a professional branch linked to UNSS. Around 40 employees in eight regional centres offer free services to the blind and partially sighted. Examples are education in braille, handling the white cane, computer skills, help with official documents and prevention through eye measurements in kindergartens.

White pencil

As stated in the introduction, September is the month of the yearly collection for UNSS. It goes by the name White Pencil. Besides raising money for its activities, UNSS also tries to create more awareness of blindness with the Slovakian population by it. Stanislav explains why it is called White Pencil. ‘It’s a metaphor. Writing with white ink on white paper is illegible. That’s what blind people experience daily. With this national campaign we seek publicity in the media. We use flyers, posters (see picture above) and of course small pencils as a gift. We normally attract a lot of attention, thanks to our special ambassadors: influencers on YouTube and media personalities who offer their support.’

Support of the government for target group

There are no official numbers of the blind and partially sighted in Slovakia, but Stanislav estimates 100,000 is a realistic figure. They can ask for a contribution with regard to personal assistance. In that case, the government pays for an individual number of hours each year. Stanislav cherishes his independence and doesn’t feel he actually needs a personal assistant at the moment. His partner does get personal assistance with regard to helping raising their daughter. Besides personal assistance, it ‘s also possible to ask for job assistance. In that case a person with a disability gets an assistant assigned who helps him/her at the work spot in order to getting him/her fulfil the daily working tasks. Some of Stanislav’s colleagues actually make use of this type of assistance.

Unfortunately, the truth is that many of the blind and partially sighted remain unemployed. According to Stanislav at least the half of them stay at home. ‘Especially for the younger ones it’s hard to find a job, despite several initiatives. The problem is many companies seem to be reluctant or afraid to employ a person with a visual impairment. Officially, national and EU law state that, whatever the disability, a disabled person must have a fair chance to work. In Slovakia, many companies succeed in avoiding the national quota rule by paying a sum of money to the government instead. It is therefore needed they get better knowledge about how it is to employ a person with a visual impairment.’

Accessibility improves slowly

Another important subject UNSS works on is improving the accessibility of public buildings, public transport and the environment in general. Stanislav notes that the situation is getting better each year, slowly. However, there’s still a lot of work to be done. ‘We mainly educate companies and public services in how to improve their accessibility. As for companies, accessible information is a key issue. Sites of the government and public institutions have to apply to accessibility regulation that is imposed by the EU. But, private companies in Slovakia or other EU member states do not fall under this regulation. So, we have to stimulate them to take action in this.

‘UNSS has a special department that occupies itself with the accessibility of buildings and public transport. They work together with parties who are interested in improving their accessibility. For instance, Bratislava castle’s museum wants to improve their information service. We help them with putting texts into braille. As far as public transportation in Bratislava is concerned I would say 60% is accessible to people with a visual impairment. Which is already much better than 10 years ago. Still, there are some things which need to be improved. The external audio system doesn’t function optimally, for instance. Representatives of the public transport company are willing to discuss problems and possible solutions.’
There’s one last thing I wonder: are there many guiding dogs among the blind?

‘Yes, guiding dogs are quite common in Slovakia, but not everyone wants to take the responsibility to take care of such a dog. There are three training schools for guiding dogs in Slovakia. They do not have a direct connection with UNSS, however we are in touch.’

Optimistic for the future

Seen the improvements mentioned above, Stanislav is optimistic about the future for the blind and partially sighted in Slovakia. ‘Things improve slowly. Yes, it’s too slow sometimes. But, every day I talk to people who are open minded towards our target group. Who are willing to listen to what we need and have to offer, as an organisation and as people. I give an example. We do have a drama group called Zrakac Theatre. The Slovak National Theatre started including our blind and partially sighted actors within partner performances offered by them. As an organisation we get much support from the non-disabled. People ask how they can help, practically and financially. Our yearly White Pencil campaign gives us a quite good yield.’

Stanislav is also optimistic about his own future. ‘It’s not really easy to live as a partially sighted person. It all depends on how you cope with it, on your mindset. I always try to find solutions to problems myself. I’m a very independent person and lucky to live at walking distance from my working place. If necessary, I’m used to take public transport. If it’s a tram or bus that is not adapted to persons with disabilities, it’s not a big problem for me. Blind people usually do not have difficulties with stairs. I sometimes talk about these things with other people with different disabilities. It’s good to learn from each other.’

At the end of the interview, Stanislav stresses one last time UNSS is financially independent. It doesn’t receive any direct budgetary money from the government. It finances itself through donations, participation in European projects; grants and social services. UNSS is lucky to hire space at a reasonable price in a former kindergarten, some 15 minutes travelling from the historic centre of Bratislava.

Copyright text and photo Stanislav: Johan Peters, September 2023 – …
The picture of the poster concerning the White Pencil campaign 2023 was downloaded from the UNSS Facebook page (with permission)
This interview is just a snapshot. I have no idea how Stanislav is doi!ng now.