People of determination: the story of a woman who changes the world
In most countries, this sign – a person on a wheelchair – indicates accessibility of the object or service for people with disabilities. In the United Arab Emirates, they are called “people of determination.” The term was introduced in 2018 as a part of national strategy for expanding rights and possibilities of people with special needs, and by the following reason:
“Disability is in fact the inability to make progress and achievements. The achievements that people of determination have made in various spheres over the past years are proof that determination and strong will can do the impossible and encourage people to counter challenges and difficult circumstances while firmly achieving their goals,”- says HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai.
Today I would like to tell the story of such “person of determination”, who, by her acts, turns over all our ideas about disability and shows that impossible is possible. This is Svetlana Nigmatullina who lives not in distant Emirates, but much closer – in Kaliningrad region.
Svetlana Nigmatullina offered to build an eco-path in protected King’s Pine Forest; and now old and young alike, on wheel-chairs, with sticks for Scandinavian walk, on bikes and with small children, can go along Curonian Spit National Park straight to the beach, to the Baltic Sea.
For three years, Svetlana has brought to Kaliningrad tourists with special needs from all the Russia and other countries, fulfilling the most cherished dreams about rest, new impressions and adventures.
Svetlana talks to local entrepreneurs, museums, restaurants, explaining and showing what inclusion is, and turning sceptics into partners in creating accessibility for all.
This summer Svetlana tried to organize travelling to Kaliningrad for the most fragile and tremulous guests – for children from Moscow hospice House with a Beacon, to give children and their parents a short respite, a chance to breathe with full breast salty sea breeze and take back happy memories, full of light, sun and smiles.
In the intervals between inclusive tourism projects, Svetlana holds workshops for large Russian companies, helping transform social problems into socially oriented business. Consults. Travels. Invents new routes, and she is firmly sure that life goes now, and it shouldn’t be put off for tomorrow.
But it wasn’t always so.
— My life became full since I began travelling on my own, - recalls Svetlana Nigmatullina. – Before that, as I thought, I’ve lived full life, too. And before I sat into the wheelchair. I was born in the town of Sokol, Vologda region, then my parents moved to the North, to Varkuta – there my sister and me studied at school, then I went to work to tax service, so it was a usual life of an ordinary person. We spent long Northern vacations at our grandmothers – in Vologda and Kaliningrad, went to the seaside. In short, everything’s ok. Then my parents retired, and we moved to the countryside of Kaliningrad, in an old German town, a very small one where neighbors know everything about each other. To me it was unusual, even frightening, circle of opportunities – work, entertainments, communication suddenly became very narrow. I already got used to living on my own – right after school I went to work, in spite of the disease which started in childhood and was progressing until I found myself in a wheelchair. In Kaliningrad, I had to start everything from scratch, living on a disability grant wasn’t ok for me, and I was always looking for something to do.
Svetlana tried organizing discos, but soon she understood that upside-down life – sleeping in the afternoon and being awake at night – is not for her. Then a neighbor suggested her making decorations of amber at home, and for several years Svetlana sweated at the table, with details laid out on it, needles and threads. It was not difficult to fashion necklaces for tourists, but such work took much strength, and the payment was ridiculous. In Svetlana’s life there also was a bouquet period – she learnt to make up beautiful ikebanas for interiors, and they were sold even at some exhibitions. But she couldn’t do, as it often happens in flower business, three good and two bad flowers, which means that she couldn’t make any profit.
Then Svetlana got her own computer, it was something new, and it was known to everybody in the town. A friend of hers came and asked to help her with an essay – Svetlana was taken aback; the school was left behind long ago – but she didn’t refuse. As a result, her friend got “A”, and then there was a chain of new orders. For several years, Svetlana took absolutely different subjects – history, Russian language, logistics, law, wrote half-hundred final essays, four theses. Along with money, this work also gave her chance for development. In the intervals between works, Svetlana, using course books, studied such magnetic and melodious Italian language, having a dream one day to visit its home country.
— Love to Italian developed into a wish to go to Italy, but, considering that there was no accessibility at all, and I had already sat in a wheelchair, and it was difficult for me to move through my own small town from home to a shop, this dream seemed vain to me. I was sure: if it is difficult for me to get to Kaliningrad, which is only 40 kilometers away, then how can I even think of Italy?
But the universe heard her, and one of her school friends with whom Svetlana was communicating via internet, suggested her going together – together it is not so frightful.
— It was eight years ago, - recalls Svetlana. – When I came back, I understood – that’s it, that’s what I want, and for the sake of this I will get up in the mornings and work 24/7. I need these emotions, impressions, meetings. I need travelling.
The ice was broken, the Rubicon was crossed. Svetlana started to travel more, tried to make journeys every year, and once she thought that Kaliningrad with seaside, nature, monuments, sights is a unique region created for tourism.
And why not to create adapted routes, why not to make them accessible for people with disabilities? That time, in Kaliningrad, there was active preparation for coming World Cup – the city was being renovated, the infrastructure was being improved. Svetlana was invited to Kant Baltic Federal University to tourism classes. During three months, she went to the regional centre four times a week, the schedule was rather tense, the classes finished late in the evening, and Svetlana had also to return home. In the group, there were acting guides who wanted to train their skills, there were even radio-and TV presenters who studied the new profession, and Svetlana was the only person on wheelchair. At first, the teachers looked at her in perplexity: why, what will it give her? Profession of a guide is a hard work, it is necessary to be active in any weather, to spend a lot of time on foot... But during the study Svetlana could make them change their minds, and even make a right and accessible route for tourists together with a teacher – not just a list of objects adapted for people with disabilities, but a coherent story.
With new knowledge and the diploma, Svetlana suggested her newly-made colleagues to make inclusive excursions together.
— We’ve made the route where I held excursions for a group on the bus, and the guides met the tourists near the objects. I gained the experience of holding excursions, and the rest got practice of communicating with differently abled people, and step by step took over features of communication. So we spent eight charity excursions for residents of Kaliningrad and the region, they were retired people, students, my friends on wheelchairs. The participants paid for the excursions, but all the earnings were submitted to the fund of patients with oncological diseases. We announced about it beforehand, and everybody wanted to be involved in a good deed.
Svetlana recalled an interesting case: she was near a museum with a group of tourists on wheel-chairs, and gradually usual travellers started joining them. They just came nearer, and, interested, followed the excursion. It was a natural inclusion. Other guides, who at first were worried and didn’t understand how to interact with special tourists, gradually accustomed to them. Now in Kaliningrad region, there are several tens of guides who can hold adapted excursions. They work both in museums, and like free-lancers, and they understand that people with disabilities are just tourists who need high-quality service and accessibility.
In the same natural way, the accessibility subject became closer to museums and other sights: they meet visitors on wheelchairs, but they have no ramp, no toilet, which means that something should be changed.
— We needn’t convince anybody or argue about accessibility, - says Svetlana. – People saw their clients and wanted to make it better. For example, we held an excursion and dropped in a café on our way to have a bite or drink some tea. We went in the café, and there was no ramp there, so the waiter had to help the guests. We came for the second time, and the waiter helped again, and third time, there already is a ramp – the owners installed it themselves.
Mass media began to write about inclusive excursions, a colleague from Moscow contacted Svetlana and suggested organizing webinar and telling about barrier-free travelling. The webinar gathered over 50 people from different regions, the organizers got the feedbacks. One half said that it is easy to travel when you have money. The second half asked – how, and where to start?
— Before Italy, I also lived in four walls and thought that nothing around me is accessible, people are unfriendly, it is frightful alone, but I was mistaken. After the webinar, we decided to make a tour to Kaliningrad for those who wants to travel, but is unsure, or thinks that such trip takes a lot of money.
Svetlana had already had experience and contacts, she had made up the program. Then the applications were collected, she warned that the tour will be commercial – that is, the tourists will pay for the travelling. To reduce financial load for the tourists with disabilities, they announced a campaign on a crowd-funding platform and received financial support from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Kaliningrad region.
— It was done not for the sake of earning, from my own experience I know that travelling is a powerful motivator and incentive to get up, to go to work, to develop. People who get everything for doing nothing, don’t appreciate it, and don’t perceive, until they invest their strength and money in achieving the goal. That’s why we tried to set a reasonable price, and raise the charity funds to support them. On the one hand, we simplified the financial participation in the tour, on the other hand, we showed the participants that there are considerate people around them, and they shouldn’t be afraid of the world.
Another important idea which underlay the tour and was reflected in its name, became the dream fulfillment. For many our participants, it was the first travelling beyond their city, some of them had never seen the sea before. So we called our tour Dream Journeys, as a symbol of fulfillment of the most cherished wishes.
In 2017, Kaliningrad received the first group of tourists, participants of Dream Journeys project. The guests from different cities of Russia were introduced to the most beautiful places connected with the Baltic Sea – Herman Brachert’s Memorial House, Museum of the World Ocean, Museum of Amber, and even brought to the neighboring Poland, to Gdansk. Yacht walk became the brightest event for the tourists, and in the evenings they could meet the sunsets on the sea-shore in the resort of Svetlogorsk.
This way the Dream Journeys project began, and it still goes on. In 2018, the main subject of the tour was football, in May 2019, in addition to the tour program, for the guests they prepared canoeing and a “sweet” workshop at the chocolate factory. Those who came to Kaliningrad in August 2019, could visit one of the main summer events – Kaliningrad City Jazz.
And for those who came in July, Svetlana Nigmatullina prepared the most unusual surprise – a chance to test eco-path King’s Pine Forest in Curonian Spit National Park.
King’s Pine Forest is a universal eco-path created in national reserve enlisted in the UNESCO heritage. The 900-meter path of eco-friendly materials, big arbours and a viewing point with a ramp going straight to the sea.
— By chance I found myself among participants of the conference where I met a representative of a German fund dealing with Baltic Sea problems – pollution, saving resources, and provision of equal accessibility for people with disabilities to the nature. As we deal with inclusive tourism in the Baltic, I got interested in the question, I realized that reserves are inaccessible for tourists with limited mobility, and people with disabilities are not included in the process of environment protection. We’ve developed the project – we wanted to try to adapt a piece of especially protected landscape area, and not just to put ramps, but involve people with disabilities into eco-education, to hold classes in the wild for children with different abilities.
We wanted that our unique national park could be visited by tourists with disabilities. Conceptually, it should be accessibility for people, but not to the detriment of the nature and animals of the reserve. The floorings on which the visitors on wheelchairs and parents with children can move, and also elderly people fond of Scandinavian walk; at the same time, we had to protect the root system of trees and plants.
— My project was approved by the fund, and I had a meeting with the heads of the national park and introduced this idea to them. I myself had been neither in the Dancing Forest, nor on the Dunes, I understood, that in the park, there is no infrastructure for wheelchairs, viewing sites and toilet. The park supported me, and together we began to create such conditions, and worked the whole year.
Along with infrastructural objects – flooring, ramps, beautifully decorated arbours, eco-toilet, benches comfortable for all the tourists, for the King’s Pine-forest route, we developed information stands, where we tell about habitants of the park in two prints – usual one and Braille.
The authors invented art-objects – figures of animals made of branches which children like so much. At the next stage, the project was supported by the Fund of President’s grants and we received the funds for building the viewing site on advanced dune, so that the visitors could get down the ramp straight to the sea and have sunbaths.
— On the beach, we don’t have paths to the water because the weather is very windy and unsteady, everything is washed down to the sea, but we are thinking over it, - says Svetlana. – We also have interactive sites for children – for example, an old hollow where a child can climb, a stand with different sorts of wood and a kind of xylophone – you can knock and listen how different trees sound.
The eco-path has become the favorite place for walks of the locals and tourists, in the arbours, we hold inclusive classes for children, including those with special needs. The Curonian Spit National Park shares its experience of creating accessibility with other reserves.
The King’s Pine Forest route located in the Curonian Spit National Park was remarked by many awards, including a grand-prix in the nomination “The best route for people with special needs” of the VI all-Russia Tourist premium “Route of the year’’ 2019 and social recognition in “Media-project of the year” nomination among business-communities of Kaliningrad region.
Determined Svetlana Nigmatullina has a lot of plans to realize: to build a tourist village with adapted houses on the seashore which will be comfortable for all. To change understanding of accessible tourism – the entrepreneurs should realize that inclusion is not a social burden, but client-oriented business. In 2020, to meet new participants of the Dream Journeys project in Kaliningrad and bring them back home happy and inspired.
Next year, Svetlana is also starting a new project, in which she is going to share her fulfilled dream about Italy. In this project, there will be walks along Rome and delicious dishes of the local cuisine, relaxing at the sea-side and studying Italian. Would you like to try it?
To be continued...
Translated by Anna Fomina