In early 2011, it was announced that the Thessaloniki School for the Blind [el] was on the verge of shutting its doors because of budgetary constraints. Naturally, the School's students and their parents, as well as advocates for the blind in Northern Greece were extremely concerned of the possible effect that the possible closing would have on the students. The School provides support services to the students that attend mainstream high schools in the area, as well as it provides the opportunity for extra curricular activities such as sports and the arts.
Even though an agreement was eventually reached that would keep the School in operation, it is now under the administration of the Center for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind (CERB) in Athens. According to many of the students, the entire process demonstrated a lack of solicited input from the people that the decision would ultimately affect the most.
Volunteers Alexia Kalaitzi and Korina Branioti, had been helping with the School's Athletic Association and were able to see how the uncertainty affected the students with whom they worked. Both had been journalism students at Aristotle University, and were already quite aware of the potential for using citizen media as a means of expression. They suggested to the students that using these tools may help add their voice to these important conversations. They approached the School with the idea of providing workshops on the use of blogs and radio podcasts to the students, which the School tentatively authorized. However, due to the administrative reorganization, the project was not given a top priority and the project was forced to look elsewhere for a host organization.
It was then that the Panhellenic Association of the Blind stepped up and showed great interest in hosting the project. As the first organization of its kind, the Association was created in 1932 in order to advocate for the rights of the blind in Northern Greece, as well as provide important support services to its members. Currently, the Association provides mobility and other daily life skills training, the services of a social worker, and employment and career advising. In addition to its extensive audio book library, the Association provides the opportunity for its members to get involved with cultural activities including a choir of Byzantine folk music. And now they will add citizen media training to the services available to its approximately 400 members from all age ranges.
In this video, project coordinator Kalaitzi talks about her hopes for the project:
In addition to the coordination work by Kalaitzi and Branioti, the “Blind Dates” project will also count on technical support for the web radio podcasts from the local NGO United Societies of Balkans, which has had experience with similar audio platforms in Thessaloniki.
The active participation of two students from the School of the Blind will help provide additional guidance during the project, serving as mentors to the new blog and podcast workshop participants. Stefanos Taokatlidis has been a blogger since February 2010 on his WordPress hosted blog titled “Το περιπλανόμενο τουατάρα [el]” (The Wandering Tuatara) named for a reptile commonly found in New Zealand. Stefanos is a reptile enthusiast, thus explaining the blog's title and the subject of many of his posts. However, not all of Stefanos’ posts are about science, but he also writes about the school trips that he takes, such as a recent trip [el] to the Greek island of Corfu.
Another student at the Thessaloniki School for the Blind who will be very active in the implementation of the project is Giorgos Proestos, who, even though he is not a blogger himself, is especially interested in the use of radio. We will feature both Stefanos and George a little more in future posts.
One forthcoming challenge is that summer is fast approaching throughout Greece, and many students and their families choose to spend their vacations in their countryside houses. Even though there is access to the internet outside of the city, blogging may have to compete with the sun and relaxation on the Greek beaches. Nevertheless, what was originally a project focused on students at the School for the Blind has now expanded to included Thessalonian blind residents of all ages, especially those that express an interest from the open invitation that will be sent in the coming weeks.
Most likely those members of the Association that will answer the call will be those that have already been using computers and the internet. Thanks to the technology of screen readers, the blind and other visually impaired have better access to the information available online. The “Blind Dates” project will introduce them to other forms of communication through blogging and audio podcast workshops. Many who use screen readers can access the blogging platform, but others choose to publish to their blog via email.
Audio editing and broadcasting may prove to be a little more complicated than blogging, but it is one of the components of the projects that the team will explore and find solutions. Reaching out to the international community of organizations working with the blind can also be another way to receive additional guidance. There are more and more communities of blind bloggers, who are regular creators of citizen media, including Global Voices in Serbian Editor Sinisa Boljanovic.
Even though blogs and audio podcasting allow participants to express themselves about any topic that they want, such as reptiles and Greek islands, the “Blind Dates” project will encourage the participants to write about the blind community in Northern Greece. It is clear that just by the services provided by organizations like the Panhellenic Association and the School for the Blind, the blind community in Thessaloniki continues to face many challenges ranging from accessibility issues to discrimination related to employment and education, as well as public policies that are often created without input from those that will be affected the most.
The “Blind Dates” project will help provide the opportunity for the participants to speak up for themselves, and help others better understand about the daily challenges, as well as the successes, that the blind community faces in Thessaloniki.