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18 Jan

Marina Vorobei (Belarus)
The Guardian, 5.10.2015

Welcome to Zapad-4, the blind district of Belarus

Because of a Soviet-era law, 4,000 visually impaired people live in a small area of Minsk, fighting for recognition – and better facilities.

Visually impaired residents say that the council does not respond to their needs. Photograph: Zamirovski Vadim/Tut.by

Our pavements are a disaster,” says Olga. “I can’t walk, I’m afraid I’ll break something. When the snow reaches the handrails I have to walk on the road. Even here, I can’t exist without help from others.”

Olga, sitting at a table with her friends in a local park, is one of nearly 4,000 blind or visually impaired people who call Zapad-4, a small corner of Belarus’s capital, home. It’s known as one of the country’s “blind districts”, a quirk of local history left over from when Soviet authorities granted significant tax breaks to factories employing disabled people as more than 50% of their workforce.

It’s a practice that continues in Belarus to this day and here in Zapad-4, the centre of neighbourhood life is still the local plant, Svetopribor. Founded in 1928, the factory moved to this Minsk suburb in 1987 and remains one of the leading producers of electrical goods, currently employing around 1,500 people, more than half of whom have a form of visual impairment.

Zapad-4 first saw an influx of blind and visually impaired people in the 1980s, when the Svetopribor factory moved to the area. Photograph: Zamirovski Vadim/Tut.by

The plant has always been run by the country’s Union of Blind People, an NGO which is responsible for a further 14 enterprises across Belarus, including factories, a sanatorium, a shop and a sports facility.

But representatives of the organisation say recent sales of goods produced by the NGO have suffered. Where once Svetopribor was a major exporter to Russia, revenue has dropped following the influx of cheap Chinese products in local and regional markets, and the result has had an impact on the support and facilities available to blind residents and workers.

“Earlier the factories were prosperous,” says Stanislav Orlovsky, 69, a former manager at the plant. In the past, Svetopribor would pay for workers’ travel – “those who wanted to could go to see any part of USSR. That’s actually what I did. I even travelled to Romania [back] then.”

Orlovsky is one of Zapad-4’s most active inhabitants. Born in Bokachi, a village in the Minsk region, he studied in a boarding school for blind children in Grodno, before moving on to work in Svetopribor after he graduated.

Orlovsky says he enjoys living here. Не retains around 5% of his vision, which allows him to move around Zapad-4 relatively freely.

Stanislav Orlovsky in Zapad-4, Minsk. Photograph: Zamirovski Vadim/Tut.by

Belarus blind district
‘Earlier the factories were prosperous. Those who wanted to could go to see any part of USSR. That’s actually what I did’ Photograph: Zamirovski Vadim/Tut.by

But opinions on the living conditions are divided: some workers say it’s far better than in other parts of Minsk, since many of the roads come with specially built yellow handrails to help locals walks without canes.

Julia, who emerges with a group of co-workers from the factory during the lunchtime break, has only been living in Minsk for a year. She was sent to work at Svetopribor after she finished school, and now lives in one of Zapad-4’s small condominium blocks. She says she is satisfied with her living conditions, and praises the “speaking” elevator in the dormitory.

But that area is still new for her. “I don’t go any farther [than this district] because I’m scared,” she says.

But others, like Olga, lament the crumbling pavements and cracks in the roads. Sitting with a group of her friends at a small table in a courtyard near their apartment block, they say they often appeal to the district authorities to improve facilities in the area.

“Look!” says a woman knocking on the wooden table they’re sitting at. “We got them to make it for us. I wrote a letter to the [Svetopribor] plant asking them to make us a place where we can have some rest. The director promised they would – and here we have it.”

Visually impaired residents have appealed several times for the district to fix the roads, they say. “They gave us a word that the repairs will be included in the next year’s work plan. But it’s been several years and nothing happened! Every time they say there’s no money in the budget. No wonder the track to the shop is all cracked after 30 years,” one women says.

The group agrees that although there are many visually impaired people in the district, the council has not worked out their needs yet. “There are only six apartment blocks [for us] here, it shouldn’t be that hard to make sure their residents don’t suffer,” one woman says.

The group is anxious about speaking to a reporter, and they all ask to remain anonymous. They claim several people who have complained about conditions in the past have been dismissed from their jobs at the plant.

Local resident Natalia visiting her sister-in-law, who is severely visually impaired. Photograph: Zamirovski Vadim/Tut.by

Natalia is at the entrance of one of Zapad-4’s apartment buildings, trying to push a wheelchair through the narrow doorway. Her sister-in-law, Alevtina, 53, is waiting for her in her apartment on the ninth floor – she’s almost completely blind and cannot walk without assistance.

Natalia, who does not suffer from any impairment herself, says the problem with Zapad-4 is that there are so few cultural facilities — or places to have fun. “There are no cafes, or concert halls or anything similar near here,” she says. “Some people use a social taxi service to go to concerts in the city centre. Or travel to supermarkets, located in other residential areas. But to get a taxi, you need to book a month ahead.”

Ordinary taxis are something that the local community usually can’t afford. The state disability benefit they are entitled to is only 2.2m Belarusian roubles per month (£91.03). Those working at the plant are paid 2.3m roubles per month, in addition to their state benefits.

“The only hairdresser’s where we can get discounted services is on Gusovskogo [a street in Minsk, nine bus stops away] – miles from here,” says Tatiana, who lives in the same apartment building as Alevtina.

“To get [anywhere] I need to ask someone for help, thank them with alcohol or chocolate, because no one will help me otherwise,” she says. “You’re lucky if people will help you at all.”

‘There are no cafes, or concert halls or anything similar near here,’ says Natalia. Photograph: Zamirovski Vadim/Tut.by

Tatiana, who also has issues with mobility, says she spends most of her time listening to the radio. Photograph: Zamirovski Vadim/Tut.by


In September last year a new fitness centre opened in the neighbourhood. It was initially designed as a rehabilitation complex for the disabled: with a hostel, swimming pool, a gym and classrooms. According to the plan, people would be sent here for intensive rehabilitation, while also undergoing training to help with job hunting.

But the allocated funding – provided by the Union of Blind People and the state – wasn’t enough to complete the building. The state budget ran out, too.

After many delays, the project was handed over to the city authorities who supplied the extra funding, and the facility is now supposedly open to everyone, regardless of whether they have a disability or not.

Although the centre offers a range of services, there are no discounts for disabled residents – nor are the facilities suited for their needs. There are no handrails in the pool, for example. “The prices are the highest in the city,” says one of the Blind union employees.

The leisure centre rents five classrooms to the Blind Union NGO, where visually impaired residents receive lessons and training. Photograph: Zamirovski Vadim/Tut.by

Svetlana Chernjavskaja, 39, comes out of the centre with her daughter. The family visits the pool twice a week, but say they have never seen any blind people there. “It is very bad that the needs of visually impaired people are not taken into account. Perhaps, such people need to defend their rights by themselves. That’s life: if you do not protect yourself, no one will do that for you,” Chernjavskaja says.

The difference between how the neighbourhood is perceived by its general population and the 4,000-strong visually impaired community is significant.

Most Belarusians are not aware of the existence of the “blind districts”. Locals may notice people walking with canes or wearing dark glasses – but rarely. They say the blind residents usually keep to themselves, and rarely venture out into public spaces.

Alex Wisniewski, 22, has rented a flat in Zapad-4 for five years. The young man, however, is unaware of the reason why yellow handrails are installed along the main street. Though he occasionally sees “elderly women in sunglasses” on the street, he seldom meets his visually impaired neighbours.

“They walk slowly; they are quiet and not quarrelsome. People with bad eyesight are vulnerable, so they’re usually quite quiet,” Wisniewski says.

A version of this article first appeared on Tut.by




Originally published: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/05/belarus-blind-district-zapad-4