American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Convention Issue 2015     GENERAL SESSIONS

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Sharing the Spirit of Our Movement Around the World
A Federationist in the Peace Corps

by Serena Olsen

Serena Olsen works under sleepshades in wood shop at the Louisiana Center for the Blind.Introduction by Mark Riccobono: This organization has made it possible for blind people to take on many challenges. We have fought many battles--not just for us to go to work, but for us to be able to volunteer, to provide service in many places around the globe. We have with us today a young woman who has participated in the Peace Corps, giving her energies and imagination in Kyrgyzstan. Here is Serena Olsen.

Thank you, President Riccobono. [She speaks a few lines in Kyrgyz.] Welcome, honored guests--or should I say, my Federation family! My name is Serena. I am thrilled to serve the organization by empowering blind people as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan is a beautiful little country in the heart of Central Asia. It's bordered by China, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. It is approximately the size of the state of Nebraska, and it has a population about that of the Greater Bay Area of California--about five and a half million people. The Kyrgyz language, which I have been learning, is a Turkic language. Kyrgyzstan is officially bilingual, using Kyrgyz and Russian. That is a legacy of its history as a former Soviet satellite.

My experience with the application process in the Peace Corps is very reflective of the advocacy that we still have to do, especially as it relates to web accessibility and the medicalization and low expectations of blindness that we are all way too familiar with. Finally I received my invitation to serve in the Kyrgyz Republic, boarded several long flights, and arrived there ready to begin my pre-service training. I naively assumed that my focus would be on changing what it means to be blind in Kyrgyzstan. I very quickly discovered that I still had a lot of work ahead of me in terms of advocating for myself, particularly within the Peace Corps system and also within Kyrgyzstan. I have blogged about these themes, and you can read my blog at <>. [Laughter]

Not coincidentally, there is a campaign currently being implemented by Mobility International USA. They have a Twitter account, #Blindabroad. They are encouraging blind people to live and work overseas. They're pushing this on social media. There will also be a series of podcasts in which I will be featured.

What I would really love to share with you today is the work of the organization Empower Blind People. I have been living and working in Bishtek now for fourteen months with two really dynamic ladies. Some of you may know them--Elnura Emilkanova, who unfortunately, due to visa issues, was not able to join us today; and Gulnaz Zhuzbaeva, whom some of you may know as a former student at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. These two ladies are taking on the entire country of Kyrgyzstan and the Russian-speaking world to bring the Federation to Central Asia.

We actually have a full delegation of folks from Kyrgyzstan with us at the convention this year. In addition to Gulnaz, we have our technology instructor, our Braille instructor, our new cane travel instructor, and a student participating in a pilot leadership training program. They've come a long way to be here. Let's give them a warm Federation welcome! [Applause and cheers]

In working with this great staff and the students who have come through our center, I feel a profound sense of connection to history, bringing it all together at the seventy-fifth anniversary convention. The idea of coming together with a handful of people in the face of low expectations and misconceptions about blindness, starting from almost nothing and building something great--it makes me feel like I have some idea what it might have been like to be with one of the Wilkes-Barre Seven [the original seven states that founded the Federation in 1940]. It is kind of an overwhelming feeling and a gratifying one.

We have two schools for the blind in Kyrgyzstan, and we have a fantastic relationship with one of them. The director has come here; she knows a bit about the Federation. She knows what we're doing, and she's moving in a direction to support our work. Unfortunately, the director of the school for the blind in Bishtek has decided that low-vision students do not need Braille and that there is no need for any of the students to waste their time learning English. We're not doing much partnering with them at the moment.

In Kyrgyzstan there is a modest stipend available to blind people, akin to Social Security. There's a bit of a housing subsidy, in the form of warehousing all the blind and deaf people in separate apartment buildings. This is also a legacy of the Soviet system. There is no federal protection such as the ADA. Braille is hardly known. A few blind people use it, but it is not very available, so we're doing a lot of Braille-focused work, to say the least. There are talking crosswalks around the parliament building in Bishtek. They were advocated for by a member of parliament who happens to be blind. We're not confident that he uses those talking crosswalks himself, because he doesn't seem to travel independently, but he decided that they were important for the blind folks of Bishtek, so there they are.

There are no specialized services for blind kids in school, so a lot of blind children either don't go to school at all or they're withdrawn at very young ages. They're functionally or totally illiterate. We have a modest amount of resources, but we have a long way to go to build the Federation spirit and create a paradigm shift in addition to building that important infrastructure.

What does Empower Blind People bring to the table? For one thing, we're bringing in services that never existed before. We're bringing them in by building an NFB-based training model, adapted a bit for our local needs. Our students learn both Russian and Kyrgyz Braille. They learn English and English Braille. Of course, they take computer and cane travel classes and lots of seminars. We keep them extremely busy on evenings and weekends. They run, they tandem bike ride, they swim.

The transitions I have seen in some of our students are extremely awe-inspiring. A poet who had been dependent on her family to read and write down poetry for her is now Braille literate, and she can read and write her own poems. A student who, at thirty-three, had never attended school, said he had prayed for ten years for someone to come and teach him something. He just wanted to learn, but nobody ever thought he was worth that investment until he came to our training program. He said that our program was the answer to his prayers. Our students who never went past the third form or maybe never attended school at all, after completing just five months of our residential training program, are talking about continuing their education, going to school and becoming lawyers.

My commitment as a Peace Corps volunteer is to live and work side by side with these fantastic people for two years. After I leave, they will still be working just as hard, and we will still be their Federation family.

A lot of people have said to me, "Wow, Serena! This must be so amazing!" Yes, it's really amazing to achieve this longtime dream of mine to become a Peace Corps volunteer, to be part of something that's so exciting, making history in the heart of Central Asia, and truly changing what it means to be blind. But you don't need to be a Peace Corps volunteer to be a part of this. I'll tell you about two ways that you can be involved. Either you can come to Kyrgyzstan or we can bring Kyrgyzstan to you.

A travel agency in Bishtek has agreed to contribute 50 percent of the proceeds for a selection of tour packages around this beautiful little country, but we don't benefit unless you book the travel through them when you come. We want you to come! Kyrgyzstan has breathtaking mountains called the Alps of Central Asia. It's a cool and lovely place where you can escape the heat in the summertime and drink the national beverage, khoumis, which, by the way, is fermented mare's milk. The same mountains can provide lovely skiing experiences. Joanne Wilson, here in the United States, has graciously offered to be a point of coordination for any of you who are interested in visiting Kyrgyzstan and want to go on a tour that will benefit this great organization. You can reach Joanne by email at

Finally, Kyrgyzstan is coming to you. We need to train leaders and instructors. We don't fully have the Federation in Kyrgyzstan yet, and the best way we can build it is to bring people here. We're in talks with Louisiana Tech and the Louisiana Center for the Blind to bring our young cane travel instructor back next year to earn NOMC certification. But the plane ticket and living costs are expensive, and also he will need to have health insurance. If you make a tax-deductible contribution to the Louisiana Center for the Blind and put Kyrgyz Republic in the memo line, Pam Allen will make those funds available to our students when they come. You can contact Pam at the Louisiana Center by phone at (800) 234-4166 or by email at

Let's go build the Federation in Central Asia! [Applause]

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