Parading about downtown Pittsburgh with a group of wheel chair bound women, a blind man and their troupe of translators, facilitators, and escorts from Kazakhstan, proved to be an enlightening way to spend a vacation. Instead of reading books on the beach, I found myself taking turns pushing the women with severe limps and prosthetic limbs, guiding the visually impaired on my arm, and transporting people in my rental car as we gallivanted around town from rehabilitation clinic to assistance organization to tourist attraction and so forth.
When I learned that Justin, my Peace Corps successor, had given my dear friend, Serik-Bi, the opportunity to visit the United States for 10 days through a grant and the Open World organization, I immediately requested a week off of work. When I heard through the grapevine that his cohort of disabled Kazakh visitors would be in Washington DC, I booked my flight from Burlington. And, as things go when working with the unpredictable developing world, when I learned that they would be in Pittsburgh and NOT DC, I booked a rental car.
I arrived in Pittsburgh on Tuesday to find my friends on a tour of the Children’s Museum. It was one of many wonderful guided tours in which they took part in over the course of their stay.
I was welcomed warmly by Kulash, Serik Bi’s wife and guide. The last time I had seen Kulash was at her house in the village. She and Serik Bi hosted me for tea. We toasted to the work we had accomplished for the Sarkand Society for the Blind. We regaled one another about the joyful times we shared at the various celebrations we hosted with the local community of visually impaired people. I greeted Serik Bi next. He was equally excited about my visit. For the following few days, we proceeded to have meals together and listen to speakers talk about how they work with their own physical handicaps or how they assist others who have disabilities.
I was especially excited about an organization we visited called, “Life’s Work.” (lifesworkpa.org) It is an amazing facility in Pittsburgh, which helps disabled people find work in the community. We were guided by a staff member who holds his PhD in counseling, the Coordinator of Adult Services at the organization; he is also blind. He showed us around the building and provided a tour of the extraordinary facility. There, a huge group of handicapped people was hard at work preparing business mail for shipping and assembling parts for various companies. Nearby were workshops and classrooms for job training and evaluations also provided by the organization. The tour was followed by a question and answer session during which our guide explained some of the challenges and some of the aid he has worked through to reach his esteemed position today.
As we traveled to and from each location we visited. Serik By sat in my back seat reminding Talant, an impressive young Kazakh facilitator from Almaty, and I to describe the sights around us. “On the right? On the left?” He would badger curiously. We described the billboards, run down buildings, cathedrals, trees, flowers, bricks, cars, shops, bridges, stadiums, and passersby. I was reminded of the scene in the film, Amalie, when she sweeps a blind man up from his coin collecting post and runs him through the street describing the sources of each slight smell and sound.
We met with various service providers who kept talking about U.S. government funding and insurance money, which takes care of all the costs of being justly educated and cared for. We learned about how doctors write letters to ensure that patients expensive titanium wheel chairs and thousand dollar custom made cushions to prevent what my mother calls, “fanny fatigue.” We heard countless stories from people who were denied their rights as humans because they couldn’t walk or talk or see normally, but overcame the odds and are now admired members of the community with resumes which put yours and mine to shame.
I tried to explain to the clinician that our guests couldn’t get past the cost questions because no one gives disabled people in Kazakhstan the kind of financial assistance they would need to afford quality equipment. I asked leading questions to get one speaker talking about the aide he received to enlighten the group. I described the lack of support I witnessed to another young professional with a disability with hopes that it might spark a fire for her. It’s hard not to think about how much work in the world still needs to be done.
Last night we visited PNC Park for a Pirates game last night. We were met at the stadium by a diverse staff, including many workers in wheelchairs and a very handicap accessible stadium. We were also joined there by Kulash and Serik Bi’s host, a blind professor of Russian language. We had a pocket of the place to ourselves. The usual stadium seating was rolled out on its wheels and our group’s wheel chairs were rolled in. The foreigners watched the game in bewilderment. Explaining strikes, balls, outs, and fouls is challenging in Russian. I don’t think I was proficient enough to get the gang really energized about spectating. After eating a greasy ball game dinner, snacking on peanuts, listening to the tremendous sounds of a stadium, and wandering the various levels, we left the game in the 8th inning, with Pittsburgh down by 3.
I said goodbye to my old friends, Kulash and Serik Bi, and to my newest Central Asian companions reluctantly and drove out of town thinking fondly of these truly remarkable people. It was strange to say goodbye again.
“You left us two years ago and we said goodbye to one another,” Serik By said to me. “We didn’t now then that we’d see you here today. Now we’ve come to your country by surprise, yet again we don’t know when we’ll see you again.” He told me it is now my turn. In fact, they all told me it is now time for me to return.
I’m headed back to my life in Vermont for now, though. I think my eyes are open a bit wider though. Once more, my friends from Kazakhstan have changed my view of the world. After teaching me about life in their world, they’ve come across oceans and continents and continue to teach me about life in my own world. They’ve opened the lens and shown me, yet again, that life is so much broader than that which we as Americans are accustomed to seeing.