A visually disabled leader breaks stereotypes and empowers people with vision impairments through online activities during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Tuesday, March 9, 2021
Olga Poloshovets (second row on the right) during her Community Connections program visit to the Cleveland Rehabilitation Center for people with visual impairments.

Olga Poloshovets leads a non-profit organization that supports vulnerable groups. Olga lost her sight 16 years ago, but this has not deterred her active life. Olga is a mother of three, holds degrees in education and law, and has managed several business ventures. Moreover, Olga participated in a USAID Community Connections (ComCon) program with a cohort of Belarusian professionals in 2018 and continues to be an active ComCon alumni. 

Participation in the ComCon exchange program and exposure to U.S. best practices of social entrepreneurship development helped Olga rethink her approach to working with people with disabilities and contributed to the success of her recent endeavor. "Earlier we didn't have such a broad understanding of inclusion, and mixed-ability groups. We refrained from mixing sighted and blind people together. We used to wrap people with vision impairment in cotton wool, trying to make them feel comfortable, and this was wrong." Upon her return, Olga, along with ComCon alumni Svetlana Senko, Elena Vetrova, and Irina Novikova, focused on a broader understanding of inclusion, and created an environment where people with visual impairments could better interact with community members.  

In 2020, Olga and other ComCon alumni supported people with visual impairments to better utilize the internet to engage in a variety of online activities and help reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19. The USAID-supported initiative was carried out in partnership with the Minsk and Grodno regional branches of the Belarusian Association of the Visually Handicapped.

Olga and the team’s efforts were very much needed in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic brought new challenges to blind people. In the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, many visually imparied were completely isolated, and needed to get their social lives back on track. This created the opportunity for Olga and the team to involve blind people in online events. The team engaged volunteers to teach participants the basics of the internet and trained them in using mobile apps and speech recognition software. This enabled people with visual disabilities to take part in the online activities.

The team organized a number of online workshops accessible to the visually impaired. The program hosted a variety of guest speakers including successful professionals with visual impairments. Webinar topics covered public speaking, managing stress, legal issues, social networks, and other relevant topics. In one of these webinars, blogger Andrei Liapustin, who is completely blind, presented techniques for blind cooking. Additionally, the team launched a hotline for people with disabilities who need assistance with daily routines, support when visiting medical institutions, or psychological or legal counselling. 

These initiatives opened up new horizons for people with visual impairments, empowering them to learn, socialize and have fun, and helping them explore opportunities provided through the internet. In addition, the program helped participants discover social networks as a new communication channel.

Olga and her team did not stop there. In January 2021, they came up with the “Invisible World” project, the first and only project in Belarus run under a new concept of conducting training workshops and other events in complete darkness. Darkness creates stress that helps a person explore new capabilities and open up hidden potential. The project has multiple objectives reflected in different focus areas: activities for children, team-building, consultations, romantic dates, or programs to develop peripheral human capabilities. What makes the project special is its ability to let the sighted feel the way people with visual disabilities do. This improves public awareness on the lives of people with visual impairments. 

Olga's participation in the ComCon international exchange program gave her a new vision of inclusive programs, and helped to open new horizons for both blind and sighted people. Since USAID started the program in 2006, over 700 Belarusian professionals have participated and have benefited from American best practices and culture through these exchanges in numerous U.S. communities. ComCon empowers 60 participants a year to adapt lessons in leadership and entrepreneurship to tackle social and economic development challenges in Belarus.

Picture Caption: Olga Poloshovets (second row on the right) during her Community Connections program visit to the Cleveland Rehabilitation Center for people with visual impairments.

Last updated: September 24, 2021

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