Ukraine’s population of blind and visually impaired people numbers nearly 50,000 and the only places they can access books to read is in state libraries for the visually impaired – there are 79 throughout Ukraine. We make a visit to Kyiv’s library for visually impaired people – Ostrovsky, on Pechersky Uzviz 5, probably has the biggest stock of braille books and audio-books in the country, but that’s not saying much...
A sighted person immediately notices the overall dilapidation of the premises; visually impaired people experience the pitiable condition of the library in the rate its stock of braille and audio-books are renewed. Yuriy Vyshnyakov, the head of the library, sums up the situation when he says so far this year they’ve only received two new braille books. The only official and state funded organisation tasked with printing braille books and recording audio-books is the House of Recording and Printing of the Ukrainian Society for the Blind.
When I inquire how many books they’ve produced recently, I’m told the organisation has not yet received any money from the budget this year. Therefore, no books have been printed or recorded in 2013. Last year, the budget money arrived in July, and the money was exhausted before the year was out as the organisation slogged to record nearly 60 books. Larysa Hryhorivna, the librarian at Ostrovsky Library, says every new book whether braille printed or recorded is a big event for the library and its readers.
Turning The Situation Around
The dire state of libraries for visually impaired people is something I learned after deciding to participate in a charity project for recording audiobooks. When I heard the idea – the brainchild of Zhenya Vyatchaninova and Liza Oliynyk – of asking journalism students, professional actors and well-known Ukrainians to volunteer to record audio-books for the blind, my interest was piqued.
The project started in 2009 with a student’s grant from the Institute of Journalism at Shevchenko University. Companies and organisations were soon brought on board, including Foxtrot, which donated CDs, CiDi Image which replicated the CDs for free, Actyvnist a youth social organisation which took over printing the covers for the CDs and many creative individuals, like the designer Strongovsky, who regards participating in the charity as “good karma”.
Since then, the volunteers have recorded six audiobooks, presenting poetry from Ukrainian poets of the 20th century, works by Romanian poet Paul Celan, a novel by Serhiy Zhadan, and textbook The Universal Journalist by Devid Rendall, read by well-known TV-presenter Andriy Kulykov. Kulykov says his decision to join the project was an easy one to make. “I volunteered for the project because I respect other people’s initiatives, and what my younger colleagues were doing was, for me, proof of people undertaking a noble endeavour for the sake of others. And I do think that journalistic standards are being neglected too often in our guild, sometimes because of ignorance; so awareness of them should be promoted as widely as possible.”
Despite being in demand as a TV-host and journalist, Kulykov continues volunteering for the project, with a CD of poetry by Kyiv-born poet Leonid Kyselyov read by him completed this August. “I think Leonid Kyselyov’s poetry is beautiful and meaningful,” says Kulykov. “For me, this was a challenge: to try to recite it and thus help spread knowledge of real poetry.”
Oleh Yarmolinsky and Oksana Franchuk from Zhytomyr have also started recording audio-books. Their motivation is the same – audio-books in bookstores are quite expensive, so why not create something for themselves. Yarmolinsky says his decision came after falling on tough times and out of respect for his family. “Thanks to the policy of ‘improvement’, I found myself without a job,” he says. “But I gained time to realise my ideas.”
His wife’s younger sister Oksana, who is now 33, became completely blind at the age of 7 and since then has experienced the lack of audio literature herself. “I used to read Oksana books, and she says I do it well, so once we had time we started working: I read at home into a microphone, Oksana adds music and masters the sound.” With the help of crowd-funding on hurtom.com – a resource that gathers money for Ukrainian professional dubbing of foreign movies – the pair recorded a novel by Native American/Polish writer Sat-Oak (Stanislav Suplatovich). It cost slightly more than 8000 hryvnia to release 1,000 CDs, which are now being distributed for free to all regional libraries for visually impaired people.
What might sound an amateur affair is, in fact, quite a professional product – Yarmolinsky and Franchuk had the idea of making the voice of the narrator equally important as music and sound effects: “For the CD we found a number of authentic Indian (Native American) songs, sounds of nature and animals,” Yarmolinsky says. However, their charitable efforts, as so often happens in Ukraine, met resistance from officials: “Presenting the CDs in Zhytomyr library we were threatened with four to five years in jail for not having some ‘warranty’ for our books,” Yarmolinsky says. “When they heard I was ready to go to prison for my job, they took the CDs.”
But the pair are undaunted by the setback – they plan to record literature for teenagers, as there’s an evident lack of it in libraries and bookstores.
by Kateryna Kyselyova