A step towards self-empowerment: from opportunities to life-changing experiences.

Have you been hearing about non-formal learning experiences in an international context for years, but are still afraid to participate? In this article we’ll introduce you some of the numerous existing opportunities addressed to youngsters with a visual impairment (VI) and, through a personal experience, we’ll explain how such programmes can change your life.

The Erasmus Plus programme of the European Union offers, among others, non-formal educational opportunities. Non-formal education means that it doesn’t provide any formal diploma and is undertaken on a voluntary basis. Summer camps are an example. On the other hand, formal education occurs at school or university and enables you to obtain a degree or diploma.

Youth Exchange: the shortest activity you can take part in.
The Erasmus Plus programme offers the possibility for youngsters from 13 to 30 to participate in a youth exchange. This activity can last between 5 and 21 days. Each exchange has a theme, chosen by the participants. The themes may concern music, culture, sport, creativity, etc. Furthermore, the exchange promotes intercultural learning and dialogue between youngsters from different EU countries. Mutual understanding, solidarity and active citizenship are enhanced through the activity programme.

Many NGOs dedicated to visual impairment have occasionally organized youth exchanges specially designed for VI participants. Views International, based in Liege (BE), is an international NGO that operates as a network of organizations aiming at promoting the mobility and independence of young people with a visual impairment. It’s specialized in implementing accessible activities for blind and partially sighted youngsters in the framework of the Erasmus Plus programme. Since its launch it has organized many youth exchanges. Through the participation of both visually impaired and sighted peers, social inclusion is always fostered in its activities.

This year, the Greek Centre for Education and Rehabilitation for the Blind together with Views International will organize a youth exchange on the theme of music in Athens. Young people aged between 18 and 30 from Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Italy and the UK, both visually impaired and sighted, will have the opportunity to sing and play music together from the 23rd of June to the 1st of July.
Another short-term activity you may be interested in is the International Camp on Communication and Computers organized by the International Organization for ICC. VI students aged from 16 to 21 interested in computers and technology are welcome to participate. This camp, held in a different country each year, aims mainly at making young blind and partially sighted participants aware of the benefits of using Information and Communication Technologies and Assistive Technologies. In a summer week, students can attend different IT workshops as well as enjoying cultural and sports activities. This year's ICC will be held in Croatia.

Finally, the International Leo Youth Camp for visually impaired youngsters from 18 to 25 is an event organized by the German Leo- and Lions-clubs district 111N every two-years. The main aim is for participants to gain self-confidence through new experiences which may be difficult in normal life due to their disability. Activities from previous camps have included car driving, climbing, horse riding, rock climbing, sailing and rowing. The camp usually takes place in Klingberg near Scharbeutz at the Baltic Sea. This year the camp will take place in August.

Although of short length, these camps are excellent for making contacts with VI peers from other countries, exchanging interests, and developing international networks. Furthermore, they are a place of integration between visually impaired and sighted people. Last but not least, they provide an opportunity to practice English since it is the main language of communication.

What about leaving for a longer period?
If you dream of living abroad for a longer period, but you’re afraid because of your visual impairment, European Voluntary service is probably what you are looking for!
From this year, it’s part of the European Solidarity Corps which offers all young people between 18 and 30 years old opportunities for volunteering abroad for a period of up to 12 months. By joining the Corps, participants will express their willingness to devote a period of their lives to helping others. By supporting others, the volunteers will not only put the core EU value of solidarity into practice, but also gain experience and develop new skills. Participants in EVS projects can use the Youthpass certificate to detail what they’ve learnt and achieved and it is therefore a good tool to demonstrate their international experience to future employers and can even help them find a job.

Views International is also specialized in adapting the European Voluntary Service to VI people. Since 2007, it has created a network of hosting organizations in Liege (BE) and it provides support to blind and partially sighted youths who apply for this adapted programme. In the adapted EVS implemented by Views International, VI volunteers are provided with orientation, mobility and daily-living skills sessions, an adapted apartment and workplace, and individual French language classes at the beginning of their service. Specific aids such as Braille/ large print materials, white canes, targeted training (orientation and mobility, daily-living skills) and reinforced mentorship are included in the special needs costs covered by EVS.
We are also aware of other Spanish, Romanian and German NGOs that, from time to time, have hosted VI youngsters in EVS.

For a young person, whether VI or not, EVS is a valuable learning experience providing the chance to improve or learn a foreign language and new hard and soft skills useful in a future professional career. However, the main achievements for a young VI volunteer may be gaining independence and leaving the home environment in order to be self-reliant.

A path towards self-empowerment.
Up to this point, we have introduced you to many existing non-formal international educational programmes for blind and partially sighted youngsters.
Now let's hear the experience of a 31-year old blind woman who considers that these opportunities have positively influenced her self-development:
"In 2005, when I was 18, a Spanish friend proposed that I participate in a youth exchange organized by Views. There wasn’t an Italian delegation so I had to be included in the Spanish one. Taking-off from my hometown to Brussels, my head said I should have stayed home, while my heart had told me to go…

It was even the first time I flew alone, using the assistance service for passengers with reduced mobility. Landing in Brussels, I still wondered why I had chosen such an experience: participating in a 3-week youth exchange with unknown people from all over Europe frightened me. Although 13 years have been passed since that youth exchange, the people I met and those weeks together are still deep in my heart. Of course, in 2005 I couldn’t have known that the experience would influence my life. From that moment I felt part of something bigger than just Italy: something called Europe.
That is why, a year and a half later, I decided to leave for the first Views International adapted EVS in Belgium. At that time, Views provided only a 4-months EVS. I spoke a little French and I was surrounded by people with different habits and cultures as Belgium is a very multicultural country. In addition, my flat-mates were also visually impaired and they came from Poland. I really felt homesick and the first month wasn’t easy at all.

I was volunteering for a special school for blind and hearing-impaired students: an unfamiliar context I had never experienced as in my country we only have mainstream education. My tasks were to organize leisure activities and to teach the children how to use a computer with assistive technologies. A really challenging task if you don’t speak the same language as the students comfortably!
Little by little I got used to my new life. I felt more skilled when expressing myself in French, was able to make friends and better communicate with pupils at school. Mobility classes helped me get to know the city so that, gradually, I felt more independent. At the end of the four months of EVS, I would have stayed longer!

After the first youth exchange and my EVS, I became a group leader in other youth exchanges and then I became part of the board of administrators of Views International. Years later I was appointed president of this youth organization and afterwards, thanks to other EU projects, worked for it, living again in Belgium, however this time for a year and a half.
Now, back in Italy, I’m vice president of the Italian Union of the Blind and Partially sighted Florence branch and I work for the EU-projects office of a training provider. From my own experience, I learnt how these activities have been useful for personal and professional growth.

I’m glad I experienced working in a multicultural environment, the importance of being open-minded, self-confident and resilient since, as I said, it is not easy to live abroad and to be in contact with so many different people. For sure, it is hard for anyone; however, in my opinion, for a VI person it is even more difficult. Now, thanks to these experiences, I feel stronger.

To conclude, my “path towards empowerment” started unexpectedly with participation in a youth exchange and, it ended up with the vice-presidency of an organization for the blind and partially sighted. If I’m the person I am today, I must thank these non-formal educational programmes and Views International. This is why, being a former youth exchange and EVS participant, I encourage all European visually impaired youngsters to make a step forward educational programmes abroad: can a person get a better boost than that?"

By Vanessa Cascio. Vanessa holds an honours MA degree in Lifelong Educational processes and attended training courses to become an expert in blindness-related issues in the field of education and training.
A Trainer and EU-project manager assistant, she works for a training provider in Florence. She conducted the Youth Employability EBU TCs as well as other international and national trainings for visually impaired people.
Since 2016, she has been vice president of the Italian Union of the Blind and Partially Sighted branch of Florence, in charge of issues related to employment and EU-project management. She is also youth coordinator for the Tuscany branch of the Italian Union of the Blind.
In 2007, she was the first Italian blind person sent in EVS.