Interview with Sergey Zelenkov

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Most of us do not perceive the urban landscape around us as a continuous chain of obstacles. We only start to feel discomfort and inconvenience when the asphalt layout impedes our movement, requiring us to spend time and effort to navigate around it. The same goes for familiar building entrances, and the effort spent searching for a new one can be frustrating. But what about those who have poor vision or cannot see at all when they find themselves in such situations? We hope that this interview with Sergey Zelenkov will provide an answer to this question.

Sergey, how do you assess the environment in which you live and move around? Can it be called barrier-free?

This is an extremely complex question and, first and foremost, it depends on the disability nosology. For example, from my perspective as a blind person, or, for instance, a wheelchair user, normal sidewalks without pits and other hazards are very important to avoid alternating between asphalt and places where there is water, mud, and knee-deep puddles. These obstacles have to be navigated around, and that is challenging.

Undoubtedly, cars left on the sidewalk are a problem. I cannot speak for every place on Earth, but I am often irritated by cars parked on the sidewalk, as if it were a parking space. This happens frequently because most cities were originally built without consideration for the needs of those who cannot see or have limited mobility and without making the streets accessible for such individuals.

The navigators that are available on any smartphone nowadays help one orient themselves and, by setting a route, it can lead you to the chosen destination. However, I still need to somehow figure out where the entrance is and where the sidewalk is. It is good if, for example, there is music playing by the entrance, so you can assume that wherever the music is playing, that is where you need to go. Otherwise, it can be quite challenging to navigate. In the meantime, they have long since come up with audio devices, that allow one to recognize where the entrance to a building is.

However, it is worth noting that this should be a sound that indicates the presence of an entrance, and is typically a clicking sound, so that both those who cannot see and especially those who can see understand the signal’s meaning. The same goes for traffic lights with a similar clicking sound to indicate pedestrian crossing. Although they are not present on all traffic lights, but only on newer ones or those that have been recently replaced.

The same goes for government institutions, banks, and medical facilities where there are no devices announcing their entrances’ location. Moreover, these signals should be standardized because the auditory signal may differ at one pedestrian crossing from another traffic light located on a different street. There should not be a situation where music is playing at one crossing, while at another it sounds like ticking clocks or a clicking lock. People with limited vision become accustomed to these sounds, which should be taken into account when installing such audio-equipped traffic lights.

What are the most significant hurdles in modern cities that have the greatest impact on the lives of individuals with visual impairments?

There is another issue, which, as I have already mentioned, pertains to urban space design as a whole – modern cities are poorly adapted for those with limited capabilities. In my opinion, the main problem with urban planning in any city lies in the city administration’s approach and its districts. Now, what do I mean by that?

City administrations generally understand that changes are needed and make some decisions accordingly. The problem with these decisions lies in the fact that authorities often attempt to implement them solely based on their own perspective. For example, they may say: “We have individuals with visual impairments coming to us, so let us help them.” But how to make changes and what changes should be made to ensure convenience is often not something they think to research or simply inquire about.

Then it turns out that the administration has done something ostensibly for the benefit of, for example, those with visual impairments, but in reality, it all remains inconvenient or even inappropriate. This happens when the nuances are not taken into account or there is no cooperation and is often simply not considered by those responsible for urban planning.

Sergey, how acute is the issue of cooperation between the administration and individuals with disabilities? How pressing is this issue in society? What is the main problem with such cooperation?

Perhaps it has to do with the principles of cooperation, although I am primarily judging based on personal experience. There have been several instances when work ended without results and with mistakes that incurred further problems. However, there have been cases of successful collaboration as well.

Please tell us about them!

One typical example of failure and deafness on the part of the administration is the tactile paving for the visually impaired. I am unsure how it is done in other places, but where I live, it was installed incorrectly. In this example, the special guides seemed to lead to a dead end because they were laid inaccurately, even though there were no actual obstacles for further movement.

In my opinion, this happened because no one came and talked to those for whom this paving was being laid. They decided to do it on their own, but that did not turn out very well, while we could have provided guidance on how to do it properly and what exactly was needed to be done.

Perhaps the blame also lies in a lack of communication, a lack of understanding between the administration and the people for whom they are doing something. As sad as it is, a sighted person cannot make it convenient, beneficial, and good for a visually impaired person. Only those who listen, consult, and take into account what has been said can understand and consider the specific needs of those commonly referred to as people with visual impairments.

There are also successful cases of collaboration. For instance, when an employee from one institution came to make Braille signs. This employee visited us several times, not just to create the signs but to ensure they were made correctly and without errors. Once the Braille signs were manufactured, the employee returned to have us proofread them, assess how comfortably the text was positioned, and check the spacing between Braille dots.

In essence, such collaboration could be termed as standard because those who made the signs and those who subsequently installed them aimed to consider everything necessary for those who cannot see well or not at all.

When collaboration is informal, not just for the sake of it, and is proactive, taking into account specific needs, it yields excellent results. Unfortunately, such collaboration is extremely rare. Despite the fact that there are now special tactile paving and Braille signs in hospitals and clinics after renovations, as well as in new constructions and other places, things remain the same.

In buses, stop announcements are often disabled, and, as I mentioned earlier, different pedestrian crossing signals are installed at traffic lights. The entrances to most administrative organizations remain silent. I understand that these are implementation nuances, but there are quite a few of them, and I would like to see their number reduced.

Sergey, how well is the interior space, compared to the exterior, adapted to the needs of those who have poor or no vision? For instance, if you need to sign something, how does that process work?

Signing something is not a significant problem. Usually, when I need to sign something at an institution, I come with an assistant, someone I trust, and who is well aware of how the process works. With their assistance, I can sign the document or inform the institution’s staff of my permission for the assistant to sign on my behalf.

Difficulties arise when, for example, an institution’s staff member is having a bad day – they did not get enough sleep, had an argument at home, or encountered other issues on the way to work, but this rarely happens, and I have seldom experienced it. 

As for visits to the clinic, the nurses and other personnel immediately understand what kind of person has arrived and provide assistance to both me and my companion. There is nothing particularly complex in this case either.

All right, what role does an accompanying person play if one needs to find employment and then commute to work?

When it comes to a specialized enterprise where predominantly people with disabilities, including those with visual impairments, work, the management arranges transportation for employees to and from work with transportation service providers. This usually involves a specific route and a certain sequence in the delivery of employees to their workplace. Similarly, after the shift ends, employees are transported back home.

As for other types of employment, if a blind person has been trained in orientation with a cane and has enough experience doing it, their opportunities for acquiring a profession and securing employment grow exponentially. For example, they can work as a masseur at a beauty salon, even a regular one, and then they can easily commute to work without significant difficulty.

In principle, there are many suitable jobs for those who are blind or have limited vision. I have met blind lawyers, I know of journalists and translators, and I have mentioned psychologists and masseurs. Many people believe that blind masseurs have a much better sense of a person’s body and muscles because their tactile sensations are more developed and significant than those of sighted individuals.

Lawyers always have assistants, and blind lawyers are no exception. It is just that their assistants must know something different from what typical assistants are aware of. I have an acquaintance who is a psychologist, and she has very poor vision but works more than confidently in her field. Journalists and translators who have low or poor vision have been in these professions for a long time, ever since Braille was introduced, and modern technology now assists them as well.

Sergey, how do technical devices assist those who are blind or visually impaired? How are computers, kettles, coffee makers, or other technical gadgets adapted for this purpose?

An electric kettle does not present a problem – you just need to fill it with water and press a button, lever, or whatever is there, and it will start boiling. As for coffee makers and other household appliances, such as washing machines, stovetops, multicookers, and so on, things get a bit more complex. Broadly speaking, these can be divided into three categories.

The first category includes mechanical means for starting a washing machine or coffee maker, turning on a stovetop, and so forth. Buttons and knobs are even found on microwaves, and there are no major issues with such devices. It all depends on experience – you train yourself, memorize, practice, and get used to it. Then comes a point when you can do all these things automatically.

I use a coffee maker that has 8 mechanical buttons, and I know precisely where each button is located, which is more than sufficient. There are, however, some functions that need to be activated by looking at the coffee maker’s screen, but I typically do not use those.

The second category comprises household appliances with touch controls, which are generally not adapted for those who are blind.

The third category includes household appliances with remote control capabilities, which are devices that can be controlled using a smartphone, a tablet, or a computer with an internet connection. The remote control function is typically implemented through mobile applications or web pages developed by the manufacturers of household appliances. Such technology can be accessible to blind users, but it depends on the specific implementation, as well as the design of the application’s interface intended for controlling household appliances. It is essential for these interfaces to be designed with accessibility support for blind and visually impaired individuals.

All of this can be challenging to learn, but it is possible. The main obstacle is the cost, since these devices can be quite expensive.

Let us talk about computers. How does it work with them? Is a computer configured for the needs of individuals with low vision or blindness more expensive?

No, my computer is not more expensive than any other regular one. That is because when you purchase a regular PC running on the Windows operating system, it comes with all the necessary options – a screen reader, a microphone, speech recognition, etc. –  and you can even install a text-to-speech reader if needed. A couple of years ago, this was more challenging, but the situation is much better now. Essentially, you do not need any special options if all you require is basic PC functionality.

As for screen readers like NVDA and JAWS, they can be used, and NVDA is a free product while JAWS is a commercial one that requires payment. The choice depends on personal preferences because, a few years ago, JAWS was much more advanced than NVDA, but now both programs have comparable features.

In short, there is no need to make any special effort to configure a computer to meet my requirements or the requirements of someone else. Everything needed is already available, the key is to choose what you will use from the list of options you already have.

I would be more concerned about the slow adaptation of urban and other spaces to the needs of those who are completely blind, have low vision, or, for example, use a wheelchair.