In our unusual interview we would like to introduce our readers and followers to a very extraordinary person – Professor Bogusław Marek, OBE. Professor Marek is the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin (KUL) Rector’s Plenipotentiary for Disabled Students, the founder of Center for Adaptation of Teaching Materials for the Blind and the inventor of ‘English for the blind’ program.
For Professor his work of more than twenty years is both a mission and a passion. He has invented numerous educational toys which are used by him on daily basis as tools to explain difficult concepts based on visual experience. In 2002 he was honored with The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by the Queen Elisabeth II for his devotion to his educational effort.
We hope the following interview is going to encourage you to get yourselves familiar with the Professor Marek’s activity and maybe even support his initiatives.
Emil Wojtaluk: You are the father of ‘English for the blind’ program and the founder of the Center for Adaptation of Teaching Materials for the blind at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin. Could you please outline the Center’s activity?
Professor Bogusław Marek: Due to the fact that the blind are recognized as a group with so called special educational needs, our activity is all about helping them with functioning like they weren’t blind. For instance, when someone sighted needs a book – he goes to the library, borrows a book and reads it. This is impossible for a blind student unless there is a copy of the book in a Braille or digital format. The blind students remain disabled persons but we try to take their disability away. Sometimes, at meetings and conferences, I surprise people saying that here at the University our policy is not to have any disabled students. I can always hear a murmur of outrage: “how come, at KUL”? All I mean is every disabled person is welcome here, but we do our best to make sure that they can function as regular students. If a student in a wheelchair is able to use a lift to get to the classroom – he is not a disabled student anymore. This also applies to blind students – if they have their books and tests adapted for them, they are no longer disabled students. This is what the Center’s activity is about and I have to say we have a lot of work. As of today, there are 15 blind students enrolled at the University. Let’s say each of them attends 8 classes and there are 10 books needed to be read to prepare for them – it makes 80 books for one person. This is a tremendous amount of work. Last year our Center transformed 70K pages of regular text into Braille or digital format. Plus texts written in Braille take approximately 3 – 4 times more space than the regular font. Our students are equipped with personal digital appliances, Braille notebooks with a small screen. Our specialty is also converting graphics: graphs, diagrams, charts or maps. We are ready to prepare boards and plans in a tactile version.
Maria Moroniak: Do you remember the specific moment in the past when the project was born? Was there any milestone, which you remember as a propulsion of the initiative? Or was it all about arduous, day-by-day work?
Professor Bogusław Marek: I think I need to mention a couple of milestones here. First of all – you two are probably too young to understand that – a middle-age crisis. When you are a guy in your forties, you have made your PhD and your habilitation, thoughts like “can I achieve anything more at this university?” cross your mind. I have always been afraid of a vision that I could end up like someone I met years ago during my studies at the University of Warsaw. The gentleman I am talking about was apparently tired with his life and his students and all he was doing was reading out loud boring lectures from yellowed pages of his notes. I didn’t want this kind of academic death to happen to me. I needed a shot in the arm. I wasn’t frustrated yet. I just could have felt I needed more. Then it happened that I was staying in London with my students and once noticed a poster of a charity working for the blind. There was a girl holding a model of Tower Bridge in her hands and the sentence “Amy will never see the sights of London” written below. It made me think: “hold on… if Amy has been blind since she was born, she’s got to have very good hearing, memory and concentration. And these skills are extremely useful in interpreting or teaching languages. The only thing Amy may be missing is a foreign language”. And then I thought I could offer English to the blind kids in Poland. So said, so done. I visited this foundation the same day and two weeks later I was a tutor on a camp for blind kids. This was supposed to let me know if I could handle this kind of work.After coming back to Poland I went to Laski (a special school for blind children). I would teach English to kids and kids would teach me about being a blind person. After two years of working in Laski I got a scholarship and went to England to do a specialist course in visual impairment. It was before Poland’s accession to the European Union but they already had some preparatory programs for the members-to-be and I was one of the first beneficiaries of the “Tempus” program, which let me complete my visual impairment studies at the University College London. After coming back to Poland I found out that my new British qualifications were not valid in Poland but it didn’t put me off. I started a “pirate” unit here at KUL, thanks to a green light from the authorities of the University. And this was when, in 1995 the Unit of Typhlodidactics of English was established which later included Alternative Comuniation. We started with training teachers, later on first blind students appeared, so did the need of preparing materials for them. In the beginning it was more like outwork – we only had a tiny Braille printer. And then we got invited to participate in a program “Per linguas mundi ad laborem” co-organized by the University of Warsaw and the Maria Grzegorzewska University (Academy of Special Needs Education). The project was planned on a large scale, including creating centers for adaptation of materials at KUL and the University of Warsaw (UW). We split the roles up – Warsaw focused on converting regular text into Braille format and we, due to my personal experience, focused on graphics, obtaining new, very expensive devices for creating high-class, long lasting tactile graphics. That project was my second milestone.
I think I need to mention the third one too. It happened during my studies in England, which were supposed to last two years, though I completed them within one year since I didn’t have other responsibilities. I was asked to give a speech during the inauguration of the academic year. Back in that time KUL was known as the only independent university from Western Berlin to Tokyo, so every embassy sent a high-ranking representative, even ambassadors themselves, in a gesture of support. I was given an opportunity to speak in front of such a noble audience, so I had been working on my twenty-minute speech for three months. I was honored with applause, but the most glamorizing part was talking to all these guests in person. There was a line of ambassadors asking me how they could support my initiative. Thanks to that morning we got equipment sponsored by the Canadian Embassy and I could go on a very important course of tactile graphics organized in Australia and funded by the British Embassy. Thankfully I was quick enough to react by saying “Your Excellency, the course is useless unless I have funds to buy the equipment for producing tactile graphics” – so we got money to buy that too. When it comes to embassies, there was also another interesting situation. Once I was parking my Polish car in a London street and saw two couples with their children walking by. When they saw the number plates they approached me and started a conversation, talking about my work with blind kids. Soon they turned out to be members of the Polish Embassy willing to donate some spare money to charity. The next day I visited the Consulate in London and left it with a cheque for 26K pounds. The money was spent on equipment which was soon sent from England to our Center in Poland. There was also the fourth milestone – thanks to a project “Równy Start” – “Equal Chance” we got enough money to buy more devices for students with various disabilities.
Emil Wojtaluk: You have traveled a lot to work in so many different places. Have you noticed any differences in conceptions of helping the blind? Do you think there is an awareness gap between Poland and other countries?
Professor Bogusław Marek: In the beginning of the nineties English parliament enacted very significant regulations – a kind of a manual for every institution interested in helping the blind. Thanks to these guidelines everyone knows what one is supposed to be doing – for example a school headmaster knows what his duties are and what source of funding he can use. They leave no space for latitude of interpretation, there are no situations when people keep saying that would be good to do this or that, but no one knows where and how to start and in the end no one feel responsible. I would say that their system works better. But there are inequalities too. Some parents of blind children decide to sell their house and move to another, richer county, where they can get better support from the government. When it comes to attitude of a society to a blind person, I have never experienced hostility, even in such exotic countries as Nepal or India where being blind is often associated with being punished for sins. I have also seen exaggeration – in the United Arab Emirates local kids get top world-class support, for instance, once I met a boy who didn’t even know how to use his electronic devices. I suppose that was because his father would buy him every latest appliance available on the market so his son never took time to get familiar with using it in a proper way. So in fact the boy had all this equipment stored without the knowledge of how to use it. On the other hand, the vast majority of blind kids living in the UAE are the kids of immigrants working there and they receive no support from the government, they can only count on international organizations.
Maria Moroniak: Your program dedicated for the blind makes entering the job market much easier for them. Do you know what happens to your students after they graduate, do you often hear from them?
Professor Bogusław Marek: We don’t run any records, but maybe we should. We keep in touch mostly because we are on friendly terms. Almost every graduate gets a job after completing the studies – sometimes they teach English or earn some extra money offering private lessons. Due to their strong interest in electronics, they also work as other blind people’s consultants helping them to learn how to work with devices for the blind. There is an interpreter. And there is also a person who undertook English studies to learn the language so she can start her dream studies – Psychology. She became a clinical psychologist and even has been awarded by the British National Health Service for her work. One of our students, owner of a deep, warm voice unfortunately doesn’t work for any radio station, but works successfully at the telephone customer service. Professional path chosen by our students depends on their determination. There are also passive people for whom enrolling on a course is enough or people who choose to study just to be entitled to get a certain type of help.
Emil Wojtaluk: I’d like to refer to the previous question. As far as you are concerned, how important on the labor market for the blind is their education? How many of them work in their educated profession?
Professor Bogusław Marek: Unfortunately, it does not look good. According to the data presented by the Polish Association of the Blind, only 10 – 15 % of the blind work and the situation isn’t any better in other countries. We should encourage employers to employ the blind showing them how they can benefit. Unfortunately there are misuses because of concessions the blind bring to companies, so some entrepreneur give a blind person a job just to make him or her a ghost-worker with a benefit for the company. The blind’s ability to fit in the labor market isn’t just based on their education but also on their attitude and interpersonal skills. Let me give a fantastic example by quoting our current English Studies student. When one day at the class she noticed that someone didn’t want to learn how a tactile map works, she asked her friend: “How do you want to know how to reach your destinations then? Every time you ride a trolleybus you are just going to count the shakes it gives you and then you’d know that you’re supposed to get off?!”. One day she came to our office asking if she could print something. It turned out she had made stickers to put on a windscreen warning drivers that if they keep parking their cars in wrong places, they will have their cars scratched by a blind person’s white canes. This girl is cheerful, always smiling, sociable. But there are also grumpy students for whom being a blind person seems to be an eternal excuse for anything. These people are going to have issues with finding a job no matter how educated they are. From the start they arose aversion or pity and that leads them nowhere.
Maria Moroniak: Has any of your students ever joined your initiative working along with you?
Professor Bogusław Marek: Of course! We had a wonderful PhD student who has temporarily moved to the US. She used to encourage and motivate our students, organize courses, theme meetings, trips, body language workshops. Each one of our graduates knows how to work with blind kids and if someone chooses to work with them he or she is definitely well prepared for that. Some of our students organize workshops in their communities.
Maria Moroniak: so your idea is being continued.
Professor Marek: If someone tries this kind of work once and it turns out well, one definitely gets hooked, there is no turning back. Once some lady teacher told me “Oh, I admire you, I am so soft at heart that I couldn’t be working with blind children.” I responded jokingly “My heart is a stone, so I can work with them with ease.”. It’s not about pity, you need a reasonable attitude. One needs to contain emotions.
Maria Moroniak: so is the job mentally overwhelming?
Professor Bogusław Marek: I would say this job is invigorating. It takes creativity to face the challenges and figure things out fast. I say challenges, not problems, because problems bring you down and challenges cheer you up. I constantly feel a need to create something new and I believe that’s the reason I am still in a good shape. It happens that I have to do the homework. One day a blind boy told me that that day he had learned a new English word: transparent. I was wondering how I could explain this word to him… Later on I was working on figuring it out at home. And the best moment was when next time we met he left the class and told his mom “Mom, I already know what this word means”.
Emil Wojtaluk: The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – the supreme honour available for a non-British. Could you tell us the story behind it?
Professor Bogusław Marek: First I have to mention again that KUL was very important institution on the world stage back in that time. A lot of embassy officers, even ambassadors, were sent here to learn Polish language. And there is a tradition that when an ambassador takes his position in a country he is sent to, he takes a trip around the country to explore it. One of them came to Lublin to recollect his Polish language course at our university which he had attended years before. He also visited our workshop and he liked it. After a while I got a call from some high officer who invited me for a lunch here, in Lublin. During the lunch with the Diplomatic Secretary of the British Embassy I was asked a lot of questions about our program “English for the Blind”: about its beginnings and about its future. And that was it. After a while I got another phone call from the British Embassy. That time I was asked “If the Queen wanted to honor you with a medal, would you accept it?”. I can remember that I was in a rush because I had to go to a lecture, so I responded playfully “How could I say no to Her Royal Highness?” I hung up thinking “Medal? What medal?”.
In a couple of weeks I received another message – that the Queen awarded me with the Order of the British Empire. I was asked to send in a list of guests I wanted to invite for the ceremony of decoration. I could choose between the British Embassy in Warsaw or Lublin City Hall, since there was a British Week scheduled then and all of the Embassy workers were going to come here anyway. I really wanted to invite my blind pupils – after all I was awarded thanks to them and, most of all, for them. The ceremony was held in Lublin City Hall. An officer of the army was holding my medal resting on a cushion. All of then-rectors of our University arrived, there were speeches, a bugle call, congratulations, a grandiose ceremony. I remember someone told me “You got an extremely important medal, use it wisely”. But I can also remember that there was hardly any information in the Polish media. Only a line and a half in the local newspaper. I am not saying I felt sorry, but later on when David Beckham got the Order I could see a huge difference – everyone was talking and writing about that everywhere! I have O.B.E. written on my business card and people sometimes ask me which Christian monastery’s acronym is this? In Anglo-Saxon countries such as England, New Zealand, Australia or Canada this status is really recognizable. This doesn’t mean they prepare a red carpet every time I arrive, although I have to admit it helped me a lot when it comes to contacts with western organizations. And also every year the British Embassy invites me for the Queen’s birthday party.
Maria Moroniak: What are the Center’s plans for future? Are you going to take up any major initiatives worth exposing?
Professor Bogusław Marek: Of course, some huge ones! I have already mentioned the project “Równy start” within which we are going to arrange a Center for Motivating the Disabled – I called it “KUL CAN”. Our team will be wearing T-shirts with the slogan “KUL CAN = You Can!” printed on them. We want to expand our activity and serve other universities and schools with our skills and well-equipped workshop, which is the best equipped one in Poland, even better that the one at the Maria Grzegorzewska (University Academy of Special Needs Education) in Warsaw . We also have signed a contract with Fund for the Blind of Laski to support their charges in starting studies, not only at KUL, but wherever they wish. We want to help them out with enrolling at their dream studies. I hope one day we could create a typhlodidactics unit at the University. We already have surdopedagogy (pedagogy of the deaf).
Maria Moroniak: You have wide experience in working with the blind, how do you think, what can we learn from the blind?
Prof. Bogusław Marek: I would say they teach us that the world does not end only at what we see. There are a lot of things hidden from our sight. We take shortcuts too often. We take a gaze at something and assume that we already know everything about the case. We firmly rely on our sight and that makes us unable to notice how this world manifests itself in so complex way. Let me give you an example of how a blind person describes rain. Once I met a man who told me that he feels very lonely when the weather is fine. He compared himself to a man drawn in the middle of a plain sheet of paper. And when it starts to rain, the sheet starts to fill up with other objects, because he can finally hear the objects he is surrounded by thanks to raindrops pattering on surface. He can hear a roof, a path, a dog leap stairway, the bushes – notice the tree-dimensionality of the world. I think that a contact with the blind sensitizes us to the world, makes us feel we can live more, absorb impressions we are surrounded by using other senses, not only our sight. The world does not end at what we can see.
If you think you can offer any kind of support to Professor Marek’s initiative, feel free to contact with the Center for Adaptation of Teaching Materials:
+48 81 445 4331 – the Center’s workshop
+48 81 445 4332 – the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin (KUL) Rector’s Plenipotentiary for Disabled Students, Professor Bogusław Marek