“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” – Jackie Robinson
I came across the story of Adrijana recently when she joined an online group for visually impaired and blind people, Eyes on Success, who had previously interviewed me a few months ago for one of their weekly, half hour shows, which focuses on a wide variety of topics of interest to people with low vision, ranging from low to high technology as well as tips for daily living. I was particularly inspired by her journey and on speaking to her, i could tell she was passionate about sharing her experience and helping other people.
Adrijana Prokopenko (A.P) is a blind teacher born and living in Skopje, Macedonia. She teaches English at both a primary and a secondary vocational school.
How did you become blind and what is your perception of light and Colour?
A.P: “I lost my sight as a baby. I was born 3 months premature in February 1979 in a state-sponsored hospital in Skopje, the capital city of the Republic of Macedonia, my home-town. Unfortunately, the hospital was not the most ideal setting for a premature baby. I lived in an incubator which was pretty old and was probably made some time after the Second World War. I was In this out-of-date incubator, with less care than was required, and exposed to high levels of oxygen. I was released from the hospital healthy, but unfortunately the Oxygen toxicity in the incubator was so high that it destroyed my sight. That medical condition is called Retinopathy of Prematurity.”
“I cannot see anything except very little light, and cannot see colours. I can make associations with smell and objects but not much else visually. It does not bother me when sighted people make reference to colour, especially in the language used. People are used to making assumed references like “do you see what i mean” but it never bothers me as i understand that people don’t mean to disrespect me (or other blind people) by making those references.”
“For example, my blind friends make “blind jokes” which i find funny. When something is not within our reach, we joke among ourselves that we are as blind as a bat! But many others may not appreciate these blind jokes. You have to remember there are many types of people around, and many kinds of blind people too. Some have not accepted their blindness, some may not accept other blind people, some may have mental issues included to their blindness, while some others are still very angry about been blind and take that frustration out on people around them. But there are many others who function as best they can, in-spite of their visual impairment.”
How are Visually Impaired and blind people referred to in your community?
A.P: “I guess stuff related to blindness is universal. Some people respect us, some treat us badly and some don’t want to get involved. In my community, people in the area are more open about issues involving blindness but in the local towns or villages, people still stereotype blind people. There is the assumption we are helpless. In the capital city, schools and associations for the blind exist, so there is recognition and some support from the local government.”
What kind of support did you get from early in your life?
A.P: ”I have always had the support of my family especially my parents, and friends. I now have a few close blind and sighted friends and am grateful for my life.”
“When I was old enough to start school, I went to the school for the blind that my parents had contacted. One of the teacher’s from the blind school had visited me at home when i was younger, to offer my parents some information and help regarding their concerns about my blindness. And when i started school, I had the same teacher who had visited me at home. It was great, because she knew me very well. I soon learned Braille and maths. I started playing the piano and participated in extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, we never had instruction in orientation and mobility or classes on daily living skills. There was no instructor qualified to teach in those areas, so we had no chance to learn the basic skills of independence. There was also not much technology available. We had no electronic equipment of any kind and I only had the Perkins Braille-writer. Even Braille’s were hard to obtain and repair.”
“When I learned about and started showing interest in a program for international students in Philadelphia, my parents were very happy for me. They wanted me to have a bright future and to achieve my goals, and they realized that in our country I could not get the training I needed. I am sure that at times they were worried for me and felt sad that they wouldn’t be able to see me for a whole year. Still, they also knew that if they kept me here, they couldn’t help me much and I wouldn’t be pleased either.”
Photograph: Adrijana teaching an English class.
Who were your mentors and what was your education like?
A.P: “My parents were very proactive with my early development and they did all they could to learn more about blindness and get some professional help, and i think it helped that i was a bright and inquisitive student. The first Professional help came in the form of Dimitar Vlahov, a School for visually impaired children, in Skopje. I remember one of the teacher’s who showed my parents how to care for, teach, and interact with me. This teacher would visit us and give my parents some tips about raising me. There was no early intervention program, so people tried to help each other in any way possible. They would share whatever knowledge they had about blindness.
“I don’t think I was even aware that I was blind when I was a small child. I was a lively, curious kid who did most of the things sighted kids would do. I loved to ride my bike outside, I liked to play in the park, to run and exercise. The state didn’t have any other programs to help parents of blind children, and I never had the chance to go to a regular kindergarten or attend any kind of preschool program. Throughout most of my elementary and secondary education, there were no materials in Braille. I had to transcribe my own textbooks into Braille with the help of my parents, and began to enjoy some personal independence.”
“I had some visually impaired mentors like my music teacher, my computer teacher in the US and a few others, but my English teachers were fully sighted and they also influenced me in a very positive way. I also studied at the Eastern Mediterranean University in North Cyprus. There wasn’t much of a real difference in the ways i was taught because the subjects i learnt were different but my music teacher would use many tactile tools to assist my learning while my English teacher found a balance in style between teaching me, as i was the only blind person in the class.”
MaMoMi: By age 15, Adrijana had fallen in love with the English language and aspired to become an English teacher. In 1998, a year after graduating from high school, Adrijana was awarded a scholarship from Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia. Adrijana attended Overbrook for nine months where she studied leadership, English, computer skills, and orientation and mobility. Adrijana was also exposed to American culture and as she says, ”There was never a dull moment in my life while at Overbrook.”
After this, in 1999, Adrijana was granted another scholarship-this time to the Eastern Mediterranean University of North Cyprus, where she studied English language with a major in teaching, and this was a new experience for the university. “I was the first blind student they had there, and although they lacked most of the resources I needed, such as materials in alternative formats, readers, and orientation and mobility professionals, they accepted me as no different from the rest of the students.”
Adrijana graduated with her degree in 2003, and found herself drawn homeward to Macedonia. “I was sure that many blind people could achieve much more, if they were given the proper training and support. I just had a strong desire to help people and make their life a bit easier.” And so Adrijana returned to where her dreams for independence began – the city of Skopje.
“You can have an impact anywhere you are.” – Tony Dungy
You teach English in school. What do you enjoy most about teaching?
A.P: “I love my job very much and love working with kids. Teachers have a main role in educating people and I find it great to help the student’s. Teachers are like parents and can make significant impact in people’s lives. I find that with English as a subject, you learn more about the world in general so been able to teach English means i can teach more about the world. I teach in the same school where i studied as a child, a school for the blind, and try to use my other senses as much as possible when dealing with students. I love what i do-teaching children who are blind and visually impaired.”
Adrijana’s pursuit to teach did not however happen overnight as it took her more than 3 years of searching and hoping. In 2006, however, Adrijana stumbled upon an ad placed in a newspaper by her old school, Dimitar Vlahov, the School for the Visually impaired. The advert described the ideal job applicant to be an English teacher skilled in Braille. The position fitted Adrijana perfectly and her dream had finally materialized. Adrijana now teaches children aged five to seventeen in 19 different grade levels. Adrijana is now realizing her dream by doing what she loves, saying ”I am glad that some of my dreams became reality. I am doing what I have always wanted.”
“Teaching blind students involves much more than teaching a particular subject. Each of my students are special in unique ways. Some want to become musicians or computer programmers. Some plan to be massage therapists or telephone operators; blind people in Macedonia have traditionally found work in these fields. I try to introduce my students to blind people who are working, and the students get very excited about these contacts. I hope that my students will have many opportunities that were not available when I was growing up. I hope they will not have to encounter the discrimination that was such an obstacle for me and for so many others.”
Video: The Dimitar Vlahov, School for visually impaired children, in Skopje, Macedonia.
Have you visited a museum or art gallery recently?
A.P: “I have not visited the museums myself but a friend told me that tours for visually impaired people were organised recently, using audio and tactile features on objects. They had Braille signs and booklets for the totally blind people, and shared historical information and other information. I am told the books and pictures used had raised images, with an audio commentary to go with the description.”
What assistive technology do you currently use?
A.P: “The only assistive technology i use is the Jaws speech program and NVDA (Non-visual Desktop Access) linked to my PC, which is my primary means of communication. My cell phone has raised buttons. I sometimes use the white cane but most people find them not very suitable. I would like to purchase the new electronic canes been currently developed but they are too expensive. It would be great if this improved technology can be made more affordable, and also if they could be easier to purchase, for example via direct debit or monthly instalment, rather than a one-time payment.”
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” – Winston Churchill
What challenges would you want to instigate and what is your biggest goal for the future?
A.P: “I may not really be any different from other blind people, with similar interests and possibly the same challenges, as other people. As i said earlier, teachers hold a main role in educating people, and i want to continue to help and support visually impaired and blind students. But we need to find ways for the schools to get and provide a lot more support, especially with the current technological advances. At my school, there are still no trained staff to teach orientation and mobility, daily living skills and similar specialized courses that most blind people in the West find easily available. Without cane travel skills, it is very hard for blind people in Macedonia to travel independently.”
“Secondly, I would like to meet my mister Right someday and get married.”
“Finally, I would also like to help make things better for blind people in general, by hopefully making a real impact in some way, to improve the lives and opportunities available to blind people. I keep pushing for opportunities to improve myself and hope my experiences can feed-forward into ideas, guidance, actions and mentoring opportunities. Hopefully i can bring positive experiences that will help prepare my students and other blind people for the challenges ahead. I know that with the right people and resources, we can motivate visually impaired and blind individuals to achieve even more for themselves and the community they represent.”
It is fair to say that when Adrijana dreams, she dreams with a depth and breadth that might intimidate others; Or inspire them. “I have faced all kinds of obstacles, challenges, and drawbacks at times,” she admits. “However, that doesn’t mean one should stop dreaming or stop aspiring to personal independence. After all, she says, “It all started with my dreams.”
I heard you set up 2 groups. What are they and what are the goals?
A.P: “I set up these 2 groups to help support like-minded people.
The first one is a blind singles group and this group is intended to help blind heterosexual singles interact and meet with other blind heterosexual singles. The subscription address for this group is firstname.lastname@example.org
“The other group is for blind educators, and it is a group for blind people working in the field of education, so they can share experiences, ideas and opinions on different subjects. If you wish to join, please send a message with the subject line subscribe to. The subscription address is
Credits: Some excerpts were used from “The Starting Point: One Woman’s Journey to Independence”, 2010, and “Growing up in Macedonia“ by Adrijana Prokopenko, 2011.