E-mail, shooting and the Moscow rush-hour – without vision
by Francis Mead
One of the things about Anatoliy is you can e-mail him and he can e-mail you back. Which sounds completely trivial – except that Anatoliy Popko is blind. So how does he do it? It’s all down to voice recognition software – something called JAWS (Job Access with Speech). He showed me when I went to film him at the All Russia Association of the Blind in Moscow.
There’s a continuous burble of a robotic voice. As his cursor runs over a sentence or as he writes, the software reads it out, so he knows at every instant what’s on the page. It’s definitely cool – and it means he can function at work and communicate with the world.
Next stop: table tennis and shooting.
Table tennis for the blind consists of thwacking a ball back and forth on a large table with boundary walls – great, but given the ferocity of the thwacking, the fingers on the bats look extremely exposed, so I guess it takes a fair degree of courage and fortitude. The rifle shooting is made possible by a sound signal patched through to headphones. As Anatoliy attempts to hit a target 30 feet away, the signal changes, guiding his aim.
Anatoliy is smart, articulate, happens to speak good English because he won a scholarship to study in the US – and is also a really nice guy. His very cute 10-month-old daughter Polina provided a highlight of the trip. It was very touching seeing the connection between Dad and daughter, despite Anatoliy’s blindness – especially his ability to soothe her through touch, movement and sound.
The trip was all about taking a snapshot of life for people with disabilities in Russia. The UN reports that they face widespread prejudice. And it’s rare for anyone with a disability to be seen on the street – let alone in Moscow’s beautiful but fearsome metro system, which I struggled with on my first few days. But bold Anatoliy fights his way through the system every morning, rushing from pillar to pillar, and walking with his stick tracing the very edge of the platform. The one thing you don’t want, he points out, is to not know where the edge of the platform is.
This is all from our forthcoming documentary, A New Vision For Russia, which you can see soon at the site of our flagship programme, 21st Century.