The blind and visually handicapped are the same citizens as sighted ones. They can use all the services provided by the government - medical, social and others. However, people, who are blind or have partial sight might face additional obstacles: restricted ability to move and orient themselves (mobility), impossibility to receive all the information they need, or be short of tools that could at least partially compensate their blindness.
In any civilized country these and similar problems arise because of disabilities; these problems are tackled by the public (nongovernmental) organizations of the blind. Organizations of the blind do not take over the government's responsibility in solving such problems, rather - they act as advisors, partners and representatives of the blind.
Lithuanian Association of the Blind and Visually Handicapped (LASS) is the oldest non-governmental organization operating in our country (it was established in 1926). In eight decades of its history, LASS has gained a lot of experience in dealing with blind people in many areas, such as development, rehabilitation, occupation and social integration.
A serious interest in the living conditions of the blind people in Lithuania arose only in the beginning of 20th century, which is 100-150 years later than in most of the other European countries. This happened because Lithuania didn't have its independence through the whole 20th century, therefore it was not able to have its own social policy.
Ophthalmologists were the first to raise questions on blind people education and development. The organized movement of the blind started in the 30's of the 20th century.
In 1926, in Kaunas, the first organization of the blind was established - the Lithuanian Union of the Blind. Later there were few other organizations for blind people. The Lithuanian Association of the Blind and Visually Handicapped is the successor and legal supporter of those organizations.
The Lithuanian Association of the Blind and Visually Handicapped is and independent, volunteer based public organization for the blind and visually impaired. It is established to: 1) unite visually impaired people for common activities; 2) represent their rights and protect their interests.
LASS is operating in the whole territory of Lithuania, it has branches and representatives all districts and counties. This allows it be quick in finding new blind people and provide them with all necessary assistance, help them to live an active life again. To realize its goals, LASS caries various non-profit activities.
As LASS is the member of The World Blind Union (WBU) and The European Blind Union (EBU), it participates in the activities of these organizations. This membership helps LASS to learn ant utilize the experience of the unions of the blind around the globe in faster and more efficient manner, as well as lead its activities according to the latest and most modern developments.
On May 1st, 2004 Lithuania became a member of The European Union. Disability as such has become an important question of human rights in the EU member states. Together with national organizations of the blind in other EU countries, LASS strives to create a "society for all", where both healthy and handicapped citizens could live a comfortable life.
All activities of LASS are dedicated to create psychological and material well-being for the visually impaired. LASS strives to create the best possible environment for these people, so that they can work, create and have meaningful leisure time - live beautiful, active and fulfilling life.
- LASS makes sure that all political, social and economic rights of the blind and visually handicapped that are determined within the international, European Union's and Lithuanian laws be followed and implemented, so that they are protected from discrimination.
- LASS strives that all the blind and visually handicapped, like any other Lithuanian citizens, be able to use all the possibilities (such as services, goods and sources of information) provided by the government and private structures.
- LASS strives that all the visually impaired, like all sighted, could get involved in all their favorite activities - study, work, relax and sports.
- LASS provides its members with all possible moral and material support, helps to acquire the needed equipment.
Besides LASS, many other non-governmental organizations and public offices help the blind to integrate themselves back to the society in Lithuania. LASS coordinates the activities of such organizations and offices, supports them with needed equipment, prepares and implements basic programs for blind people rehabilitation and integration. These non-governmental organizations and public offices that are taking care of the blind are partners with LASS in aiming to achieve the main goal - create proper conditions for the blind and visually handicapped to live meaningful and fulfilling lives.
LASS itself is a partner of the government in implementing the National Social Integration of the Handicapped Program 2003-2012. Through this program, LASS contributes to the implementation of the governmental social policy.
LASS achieves its goals in various ways that are legally approved by the Lithuanian Constitution and state laws:
- Cooperates with the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas), government and municipality institutions; collects information about draft laws, by-law regulations, provides suggestions how the interests of the blind and visually impaired should be protected.
- Together with local municipalities, other public institutions, support and charity organizations and funds that operate in Lithuania, LASS prepares programs for material aid and humanitarian support.
- Together with public social institutions, organizes support and care to the elderly, sick and lonely members.
- Cooperates with foreign organizations and funds of the blind, together performs common rehabilitation and integration programs. Foreign organizations of the blind help visually impaired receive vocational training, learn using new technologies and acquire new specialties.
- Participates in the work of the Council of Affairs of Disabled People. Represents other smaller organizations and funds of the blind.
- Being a public organization, LASS cannot solve a lot of problems faced by the blind by itself, therefore, it gathers efforts of the whole community and encourages personal initiatives to address all issues.
LASS welcomes to its membership every over 18 year-old Lithuanian citizen or permanent resident of the Republic of Lithuania who fulfills the following conditions:
- Person's visual acuity in a better eye after correction does not exceed 0,3;
- A person has been diagnosed with other visual disability that under the law of the Republic of Lithuania prevents him/her from doing one's work that requires working capacity higher than 55%.
A person is accepted in LASS after he/she hands in a written application and documents proving his/her visual disability.
Every LASS member is eligible to participate in all LASS activities, help others and receive help, vote and be elected to all management positions within LASS. LASS members have a right to use all LASS services in a defined manner, receive other kind of help and technical aid.
Any person of good will can become a sponsor of LASS - both natural persons and legal entities who are supporting activities of the organization and blind people integration in the society, welcoming the idea of fulfilling life for the blind. LASS can be supported in many ways:
- By participation in projects and programs run by LASS;
- Doing specific jobs that contribute to creating easier and safer life for the blind, making it easier for them to access various services, goods and sources of information.
Even if you are not cooperating with LASS but you do something good and beneficial for the blind, you are already supporting LASS, and through it - all visually handicapped people.
You can support LASS and its programs by dedicating 2% of your income tax.
Visually impaired people are one of the most vulnerable in the society. By implementing its programs, LASS tries to make them feel less socially isolated.
To decrease social isolation, LASS prepares general programs and supports its members together with local municipalities and district authorities. Since 1977, LASS and municipalities started creating social services and day care centers. In these centers, people can be consulted, receive various services: filling in documentation, personal hygiene, medicine, transport, attendants and others. LASS aims to make these social services accessible to all blind people in any big or small city and village.
Social services centers together with city and district municipalities are creating an implementing various project aimed at integration of the blind into the society. They are providing socio-cultural services such as art and self-expression circles, handicraft and pursuits clubs. LASS creates environment for further rehabilitation of visually impaired through their engagement in various cultural activities, sports and handicrafts.
Besides socio-cultural services, LASS also provides rehabilitation services: people who recently lost their sight are taught how to orient themselves in the environment, walk using a white cane, and be able to operate at home. Any new member can learn those things at a rehabilitation center or at home. LASS follows the principle that a person who has recently lost his/her sight should receive rehabilitation services at his living environment, so that after the accident or sickness which was the main reason of blindness, he/she would remain active member of the community.
LASS provides only part of the services needed by visually impaired. These services are essential and very specific, without which no blind people rehabilitation and integration to the community would be possible. LASS strives to encourage many public offices and other organizations to provide more various services to the blind and visually handicapped. It supports all good-will initiatives to help visually disabled people: provides information about the blind, their special needs, shares their practical working experience.
LASS collects data about all visually impaired people and already has an extensive computer database. Exact data - more possibilities to help!
Not only the number of visually handicapped in Lithuania is known, but also other demographic data such as age, education, blind people territorial distribution in various regions of Lithuania. This type of information helps in identifying what kind of help is needed by a particular blind person, and enables its prompt provision. Information operated by LASS is continually updated, as well as shared with interest public offices.
While collecting data about the blind, LASS strictly follows the law of the Republic of Lithuania: the personal data is collected and saved only under person's consent, after he/she is explained the purpose of such activity.
In total, there are about 9,000 blind children and adults in Lithuania: 1,000 - children; 8,000 - adults. 1,000 - totally blind persons; 2,000 - those who can barely see and have serious visual disability. Lithuanian Association of the Blind and Visually Handicapped has 7,000 members.
Visually impaired people can receive moral and material help from LASS. This help directly depends on available resources, existing requirements and general social policy. However, in 80 years of activity, the main trends have evolved. LASS:
- Consults the blind and their family members regarding visual disability and implementation of their civil rights; refers newly blind people to rehabilitation centers.
- Supports the blind and visually handicapped in acquiring new professions, helps to find tools necessary for their education and work.
- Acts as an intermediary in employing visually disabled people in the open society, consults employers and the blind about privileges provided by the government to create and maintain jobs for disabled people.
The blind and visually impaired are working, having leisure time, do sports, participate in public and politic activities in Lithuania the same way as people who are fully sighted. They want to use various information sources, try to access culture and art. They want to integrate themselves into the society and live meaningful lives! Integration of visually impaired people into the society could be successful only when the society itself engages in this process; only when architects, businessmen and producers understand that blind people are also using the public buildings, services and products they have created.
The society can contribute to solving blind persons' problems only if its aware of them. Therefore, LASS is distributing information about the life of the blind and their challenges in various ways.
- For more than 40 years LASS has been publishing its monthly magazine "Mūsų žodis" (Our Word). This is the only magazine in Lithuania, which is published in 4 different formats: in Braille, in print, recorded on CDs and distributed in the Internet. The magazine is sent to those Parliament and Government members, municipality care departments, who are interested in life of the blind.
- LASS is constantly publishing informative publications about visual disability, opportunities that can be used by the blind and visually handicapped, ways and tools to help those people.
- LASS keeps close relationships with the biggest Lithuanian newspapers, prepares press conferences; provides telegram agencies with information about important activities organized by the blind.
Each year on the October 15th, the White Cane (the Blind) Day is celebrated. This day reminds the society and governmental structures about the main life problems of the blind as well as the solutions being searched. In Lithuania, the White Cane Day is dedicated to the certain life area of the visually impaired: development, employment, position of the blind within the information society, etc.
In one of the Lithuanian cities, LASS celebrates the October 15th by organizing a special event "Susitikimai" (Meetings) for the blind and visually handicapped, where amateur musicians and dancers show their performances, craftsmen exhibit their works, as well as various meetings between local people and students are taking place. They discuss sight disability, sight disorders and their prevention.
Information accessibility has always been one of the most important issues for the blind. However, it becomes especially vital once information society no longer is a dream, but a reality. This society is comprised of both healthy and disabled people. Unfortunately, creators of the information society do not always think about that.
Information technologies are developing and improving really fast, therefore all the problems that the blind face in relation to this issue are constantly changing too. Nonetheless, one principle should always remain unchanged: fully sighted, visually handicapped and blind people should be able to use all the possibilities that come from the new information technologies. This includes the Internet, mobile phones, e-banking and e-government.
LASS wants to help visually impaired people to access information, therefore it runs a few long-term programs. In 2003, it started a program called "Digital Book for the Blind", which purpose is to record books for the blind. LASS initiated the development of the Lithuanian speech synthesizer, which could be used by the blind to read digital texts and browse the Internet in Lithuanian. In 2006, LASS initiated a speech synthesis program for mobile phones. The first hundred of blind people are already provided with the new "talking" mobile phones.
LASS achieved that the resolution of the government of the Republic of Lithuania on websites' accessibility for the handicapped people be adopted. However, this resolution is valid only for the public offices' websites. For all Lithuanian websites to be accessible by all disabled people, a special resolution or some changes in the current one should be made.
Accessible physical environment is crucial for the visually handicapped. This includes sound equipped traffic lights, bright and clearly lit entrances to the public buildings, proper print size of publications, etc. Well-organized physical environment increases self-sufficiency, independence and activity of visually impaired people, as well as enables them to live a fulfilling life.
LASS aims to spread information about how physical environment needs to be adapted for the blind and visually handicapped. It keeps on publishing various leaflets and recommendatory literature related to this issue. These publications can always be found in LASS structural branches or the Lithuanian Library for the Blind.
In 2005, with the initiative of LASS, a new project was begun. It is a unique project, as it doesn't have any analogues in Lithuania - Public Transportation for the Blind and Visually Handicapped. At the time this project was started, similar informative systems existed only in two European cities - Madrid and Prague.
LASS is working on few long-term regional project that are aimed at making shopping malls, policlinics and other public offices accessible for the blind and visually handicapped.
Making the physical environment accessible for the blind and visually handicapped will not be a success without positive attitudes and understanding of the society. Blind and visually handicapped people will face much lesser challenges if their needs are addressed in advance: during the stages of designing new buildings, planning environment changes, preparing visual information.
The blind can successfully integrate themselves in the society only if they have good educational background, marketable professions and if they can constantly develop their skills and gain new knowledge. The basics are given to the blind already at school, therefore, LASS promotes and encourages education of visually handicapped children.
LASS is cooperating with the educational institutions for the visually impaired, together preparing common projects for blind children education, development and personal expression.
LASS helps those special educational institutions and the blind children in many ways: supports in improving institution's material basis, providing children with necessary technical equipment.
More and more visually impaired children and their parents are choosing education in ordinary secondary schools. LASS supports the newest and most advanced ideas coming to Lithuania on integration and inclusion of the blind. Based on the experience coming from Scandinavian countries, LASS gathers together parents of blind children, encourages them to actively participate in the development of their offspring, and to establish parents organizations. Also, LASS organizes general camps for blind and visually impaired children, their teachers and parents.
LASS encourages adult education and development, supports motivation of the blind to gain more knowledge.
For the blind and visually impaired people, cultural activities are meaningful both as their leisure time and self-realization. But most of all, it's a form of their self-integration into the society. LASS fosters cultural integration for the blind in two main directions:
- Encourages and supports the professional art.
- Provides socio-cultural services and motivates amateur artists to express themselves.
Each year LASS sponsors publishing one prose/poetry book and of one compact disc with music created by the visually impaired. Those works of art are selected during competitions.
The Lithuanian Library for the Blind holds competitions for the blind writers, while the Lithuanian Choir "Vilnius" - for the blind musicians. To promote cultural creativity and expression of visually handicapped people, LASS cooperates with the Lithuanian Writers' Union, the Lithuanian Musicians Fellowship and other artists' organizations. Together with several Lithuanian museums, LASS implements its long-term program "Art Accessibility to the Blind". The goal of the program is to make the works of art displayed in the Lithuanian museums accessible to the visually handicapped. Experience of other European countries, especially France, motivated to start such a program in Lithuania.
LASS also organizes annual art festivals of the visually impaired. Groups and individual performers, folk artists, craftsmen, men and women of letters take part in them. Exhibitions of visually impaired writers' books and folk artists' works are held annually.
Most of the cultural and socio-cultural services for the blind are provided by social services (day) centers. They gather visually handicapped musicians, craftsmen and folk artists; organize cultural shows - performances, get-togethers, meetings with people that represent city art, science and politics. Blind artists and musicians are performing a lot; they are actively participating in their city's or town's cultural life. LASS coordinates the activities of cultural centers, encourages random performers and organized groups to participate in nation's cultural life, international blind creator's festivals.
For many decades, most of the visually handicapped people used to work at sheltered enterprises for the blind.
Under the conditions of market economy, it became clear that these enterprises can employ only a small part of the visually disabled community. More and more visually handicapped people find jobs in the open society. LASS aims that people with sight disabilities be able to obtain promising specialty within current market conditions. LASS looks for potential employers, consults them about possible funding from the government.
In 2004, thanks to the initiative of LASS and other disability organizations, the Lithuanian Parliament adopted the social enterprises' act. For the first time in Lithuanian history, this act has come to regulate the governmental help and financial aid for the enterprises that employ disabled people. This law defines not only the main kinds of aid to be given for all social enterprises, but also a few more for those who employ disabled people.
In 1990, LASS initiated the course of massage. Over the last 15 years, more than 200 blind and visually impaired people gained this profession. Blind masseuses work at hospitals, sanatoriums, ant rehabilitation centers. Most of them have acquired the license to have private practice.
More and more visually handicapped choose to study social work. They work at LASS offices and social services (day) centers; provide services for other blind and visually impaired people. They successfully pass all exams and meet all requirements for such a course and become really professional at their work. Services provided by these visually impaired social workers are extremely effective - they know the sight disability really well, therefore, they can understand all the needs that blind people might have.
The blind, same way as sighted people, cannot imagine their lives without computers and information technologies. Since 1995 LASS started establishing individual paperless jobs. Over the last 10 years, more than 100 such jobs were created. LASS lends computers and adapted computer equipment on easy terms for the blind.
An increasing number of the blind and visually impaired get interested in traditional crafts of ceramics and weaving. For some, this activity is a way of therapy, for others, it has become the source of income.