“I’m no longer afraid of the street”

Transforming lives at the orientation school for people with visual impairments

December 21, 2023

Inesa Balandovych enjoying leisurely stroll.

Photo: Complex Rehabilitation Centre "Podillia"

Inesa Balandovych from Vinnytsia, Ukraine, lost her eyesight six years ago due to a genetic disorder. Before losing sight, the 52-year-old woman worked in a bank and in the communal sector. When the disease suddenly altered her life, the woman was overwhelmed by anxiety, uncertainty, and fear.

"It was unimaginable to accept that my sight would never return. I found myself in constant denial, shedding tears without end,” said Inesa. “At home, I somehow managed to handle daily chores on my own. However, a persistent worry lingered: the fear of burdening my family loomed large as I relied entirely on assistance to step out of the house, says Inesa; I longed to engage with people, just like before. Yet, a part of my social circle seemed to vanish overnight. It was evident they were afraid, unsure how to act around me now. But I'm just an ordinary person who happens to be with visual impairments".

Inesa Balandovych during the School of Orientation and Mobility sessions. Photo: Complex Rehabilitation Centre "Podillia"

For six years, Inesa's husband and daughter searched tirelessly for various opportunities to help her learn spatial orientation and acquire the necessary skills for a person with visual impairments. However, they couldn't find any institution or programme that met her needs. Until they saw an advertisement for the UNDP-supported "School of Orientation and Mobility" at the Comprehensive Rehabilitation Center for People with Disabilities "Podillia."

The "School of Orientation and Mobility" and the "Digital Skills School" were established as part of the "Enhancing Rehabilitation Services Quality in Vinnytsia Oblast" project. Both schools, run by the NGO "Podiska Hromada," were implemented under UNDP’s "Supporting the Rehabilitation of People with Disabilities Caused by the War," project with funding from the governments of the Republic of Korea and Germany.

The “School of Orientation and Mobility” is committed to instructing individuals with visual impairments in independently navigating various environments. This training is vital for their autonomy, as it empowers them to access educational and employment opportunities and manage their daily life and personal routines independently. The programme is instrumental in fostering self-reliance and confidence among people with visual impairments by developing essential skills for independent spatial orientation. These skills are crucial for performing everyday tasks such as grocery shopping, cooking, handling household chores, and moving through public spaces like banks or hospitals.

In addition to mobility skills, the need for digital literacy among people with visual disability is increasingly recognized. To address this, the "School of Digital Skills" works to reduce the digital gap for people with visual impairments, making it easier for them to complete daily tasks such as online shopping and bill payments independently.

'See the street through sound'

Inesa attended classes at the "School of Orientation and Mobility" for a month. Initially, the group engaged in exercises to develop their remaining senses – smell, hearing, touch, and taste – within the confines of a classroom. Later on, they transitioned to practical exercises out on the streets.

Inesa navigating the street using a white cane during the School of Orientation and Mobility sessions. Photo: Complex Rehabilitation Centre "Podillia"

"For the first time, I took a cane in my hands, understood how to use it, tried to orient myself in the room, and overcame obstacles,” she said. “Then, for the first time, I went onto the street with it, where I practiced cane techniques with instructors. I learned to 'see the street through sound, crossroads, and board transportation.” Before that, she didn't know how to use a white cane and always moved around with assistance.

The white cane is the primary tool that allows a person to become mobile and independent, ensuring safety in movement; it's the primary aid.

"I dream of walking with my grandchildren someday," the woman shared.

In three weeks, Inesa achieved incredible results. During one of the sessions, she impressed the instructors: confidently managing public transportation, crossing traffic lights and underground passages, and making purchases.

"Now, I can independently go to a store or market, reach a hospital, and use public transport. I can do everything now, and I'm not afraid to go out on the street!” said Inesa.

Inesa independently buying groceries during a practical session.

Photo: Complex Rehabilitation Centre "Podillia"

Access to technology

People with vision loss face numerous challenges, including the use of digital services and applications. Therefore, UNDP also supported the "Digital Skills School," which aimed to provide participants with knowledge and skills in using smartphones and computers.

The educational programme included practicing touch typing skills, file management, text editing, internet usage, installation, and use of specialized software and applications that assist individuals with visual impairments in performing their daily tasks.

Students of the Digital Skills School working on computers. Photo: Complex Rehabilitation Centre "Podillia"

"Before the rehabilitation course, I had a 'button' phone. I couldn't imagine being able to use a touchscreen. It turns out there are mobile applications that make life comfortable for people with visual impairments. With their help, I can read the text and even differentiate between banknotes," the woman rejoices.

Inesa adds that after attending the "Digital Skills School," she learned to be independent and interact with the world around her. However, she said, society should also acquire the skills and sensitivity for communicating with people with visual impairments.

"Sometimes, you feel invisible. And when people bump into you on the street, you immediately sense they don’t know how to act. For instance, when you ask something – for some reason, people start replying louder, but I can hear! Or, let’s say when you enter a park with a cane, yet children don’t understand that I can't yield the way.

Inesa Balandovich enjoying leisurely stroll.

Photo: Complex Rehabilitation Centre "Podillia"

“I wish such programmes could expand throughout Ukraine because I experienced first-hand how challenging it is to live in this new reality and find joy in life."


The establishment of the "School of Orientation and Mobility" and the "Digital Skills School" became possible thanks to the project "Enhancing Rehabilitation Services Quality in Vinnytsia Oblast," implemented by the NGO "Podilska Hromada" with the support of UNDP under the project "Supporting the Rehabilitation of People with Disabilities Caused by the War," and funded by the governments of the Republic of Korea and Germany.

Read also: In Ukraine, visual disabilities rise sharply in wake of war. UNDP initiative supports Ukrainians to overcome challenges associated with loss of sight