International Agency of the Month - Poland: The Medison Rehabilitation and Training Centre
Date Posted: 06/02/2015
by Maribel Steel, International Agency of the Month Correspondent and Peer Advisor.
In 1983, Wojtek Maj (pronounced Voy-tek), who has been blind since infancy, became a certified freelance translator and interpreter having successfully obtained his M.A Degree in English at the University of Silesia, South Poland. Four years later, Wojteck was approached by a Christian Publishing House to translate books from English to Polish. Among many titles he translated, one was Bainton’s classical biography of martin Luther "Here I stand."
When the Publishing House offered to purchase a computer for Wojtek to replace the slower process of his trusty typewriter, the new computer featured the first synthetic speech output solution for the blind in Polish (JAWS 3). It didn’t take long for the new technology to capture his fascination even though learning the process of ‘computer talk’ was incredibly cumbersome. He progressed deeper into the World Wide Web by using WINDOWS, which prompted another thought: how could he help other blind people who had to learn from scratch and make their learning of computers easier?
Wojtek would set in motion a new career, and in 1993, his company, The Medison Rehabilitation and Training Centre was born. Since then he has supplied access technology and offered training courses for blind and visually impaired computer users throughout Poland.
Blindness Brings a Family Vision
Four years later, Wojtek met his future wife, Agnieszka. They had a son, Mieszko and at the time, there was no suggestion their children's sight might be endangered. But in 2009, when their daughter Rose came into the world, her parents suffered a horrendous shock: their baby had Retinoblastoma (RB), an ocular cancer. It was their daughter’s condition that finally solved the ‘mystery cause’ behind Wojtek’s own blindness during infancy.
As a result of wanting parents to be more informed, Agnieszka established the VEGA Foundation. Her passion is to help other parents become more knowledgeable about eye-health for infants and young children, therefore the work of VEGA is focussed on sight loss prevention.
Since 2010, this entrepreneurial husband and wife team, Wojtek and Agnieszka, have been inspired to introduce an array of services in the Medison Rehabilitation and Training Centre. As Wojtek remarks, "It is very difficult to find rehab services in Poland to help the blind, like those that exist elsewhere in the West. The agency is my life and the life of my family. We are so immersed in this work."
Bridging the Gap Today
The Medison Agency is situated in Kielce, in the south-west of Warsaw. It employs three other instructors under the directorship of Wojtek and Agnieszka. The Rehabilitation and Training Centre helps clients who are blind or visually-impaired to find support in local or national services throughout Poland. They see their work as a conduit that links clients’ needs to other services. Their reputation as a recognized Rehabilitation Centre has grown in popularity, receiving the overflow of clients being referred to their centre by the Polish Blindness Association.
The agency’s mission includes:
- working towards the integration of blind and partially sighted people into the mainstream of social life in Poland
- facilitating change of stereotypical beliefs by raising awareness within their community to bring about new attitudes
- supporting the development of effective policies by making recommendations in the areas of common law within organizations
- recommending solutions for rehabilitation, education, employment, and social assistance programs
Life in Poland for People Who Are Blind or Visually impaired
"The word 'blind' is a real stigma in Poland," said Wojtek. "Our country used to be a communist country where the State gave money to certain Associations to keep blind people tucked away, out of sight from the general public. Only when the changes came twenty-five years ago, when Poland moved rapidly to integrate ideas from Western democracy, did social habits and attitudes begin to change."
"Some services that are slowly improving in Poland are the use of tactile markers and audible street lights and buses equipped with audible announcements. “But there are other problems," Wojtek pointed out. "People are not used to it. Bus drivers don’t see blindness as needing this service and keep the volume low so as not to annoy sighted travelers. At night, some people ask for the pedestrian lights to be turned off because they can’t open their window due to the beeping-sound. When there is no one else around to ask for help to cross the road, the blind person needs the audible lights more than ever."
Funds for Technology Come in Four-Year Cycles
In order to obtain co-financing of expensive specialized technology, people living in Poland can’t gain access to funds readily. Programs are introduced at the beginning of each year to enable people with a disability to apply and if their application is successful, the authority specifies the conditions, with no further funds being made available to that person for another four years. The program can also decide if the technology the applicant has requested is the best choice and can refuse to supply it.
The problem Wojtek encounters time and time again is that most people don’t know which equipment will work best for their special needs. There is a strict limit of US $3,000 per person’s application and unless they are well informed, making the right choices to aid their disability is often a stressful process.
One service the Medison Centre provides is a comprehensive guide for each client where they are informed and advised on the best choices in technology that will suit their individual needs. "People don’t know exactly what they need." said Wojtek. "This is where we can help to clarify options, be realistic within a budget and include other expenses such as training."
The Personal Touch
The personal touch is an important aspect of their rehabilitation and training services. Not only do the staff teach their clients how to use technology for the blind, they also facilitate weekend workshops and teach techniques in safe mobility around the home and community.
The centre has a live-in facility, with fifteen beds in private rooms, where clients can stay while learning new skills in adapting to all aspects of having low vision or blindness. Currently they offer short training courses to meet their clients needs.
This service came about by the request of a nursing home run by Laski, one of the oldest blindness organizations in Poland, who asked Wojtek to design and teach a training course to enhance the skills of their staff.
Conferences are held most years where experts from around Poland and the world come together to focus on sharing their knowledge and practical solutions to living with blindness (including VisionAware’s own Maureen Duffy).
Wojtek and Agnieszka have gone one step further and made rehabilitation a 'family focus.' "We decided an important aspect in learning new skills is helping our clients to feel at home by offering a family style environment,” said Wojtek. “We stay together, to eat, to share in meal preparation and help each other learn new skills while sharing the chores at the centre. This works well because we invite only three to five people to stay at a time."
Sound Photography-A Visionary Outlook
One other vision Wojtek shared in this interview was his passion for culture and art history. He would love to help blind people see the world around them by using something he calls sound photography.
"This means taking in scenes from all the senses, where a sighted person may drive the blind person on a tourist visit. It would be an exercise in improving the person’s ability to recognise the world around them by heightening their senses." Why teach culture if art cannot be seen? Wojtek believes there is a deep need to encourage sighted people to find new ways to include the blind community into tourism, culture and art history. "People are deprived of these riches unless we bring these treasures into their lives." It is Wojtek’s desire that would like to develop the "tourism sound photography" concept much more in the near future.
Maribel: My deepest thanks to Wojtek for his time in talking with me via Skype, a feeling of kindred spirit came shining through as we delved into his inspiring life story.
Links to Additional Information
VEGA Foundation, initiated by Agnieszka Janicka-Maj. This website is aimed at promoting awareness of the need to examine the eyes of newborns and young children.
Where I've Been: My Blindness Work in Central Europe, by Maureen Duffy, writer/editor of the VisionAware blog.