SONS' Visit to the Croatian Blind Union

In July, representatives of SONS (Czech Blind United) visited our sister organization in Croatia, the Hrvatski savez slijepih, also known as the Croatian Blind Union (CBU). Conversely, our Croatian colleagues will visit us in September. These reciprocal visits are part of a broader project funded by the European Commission and organized by the European Blind Union. This initiative aims to foster the exchange of experiences and mutual inspiration between national organizations for the blind and visually impaired. But what did we have the opportunity to see in Croatia specifically? How can our colleagues there be a model for us, and in what areas is our country's situation better?

We spent the first two days of our working trip in Zagreb. The focal point for us here was a building in the city center that the Croatians call the "Typhlo-block." This fairly modern renovated building houses not only the CBU organization but also the Croatian Library for the Visually Impaired, the Novi Život theatre for the visually impaired, and the Tiflotehna aids shop.

The CBU is a smaller organization compared to SONS. In fact, it serves as an umbrella organization, bringing together a total of 26 local organizations from various Croatian regions. Each of these local organizations operates independently, with their primary focus being leisure activities; however, this can vary from region to region. The CBU, itself has 15 employees. They're primarily responsible for advocating for the interests of the visually impaired at the national level and for international contacts. As professional services such as social counseling or support for the use of assistive technology are not consistently available across Croatian regions, the CBU is striving to provide these services remotely from Zagreb. They are also in the process of assembling a mobile team that will travel to various regions to assist clients directly.

In terms of social security, it's critical for blind and partially sighted people in Croatia to obtain a certificate of visual impairment, which is categorized based on severity. This certificate entitles them to a monthly disability allowance of 230 euros, and now also provides nearly free access to assistance, guide, and reading services for between 10 and 60 hours per month. Individuals with a certificate of visual impairment can also receive an allowance from health insurance for aids, such as a white cane once a year, or a screen reader or a magnification program once every eight years.

Due to the extensive time interval between provisions for assistive technology allowances, Croatians often turn to free solutions like the NVDA screen reader or the integrated Magnifier in Windows. It was also surprising to us that the Czech voice of Zuzana was heard from all Croatian blind users of iPhones and Apple Watch. This is reportedly due to the unavailability of a Croatian voice on these devices for an extended period. Even though it's now available, it's riddled with pronunciation errors, so Croatian visually impaired people rather still prefer to listen to the Czech Zuzana.

In Croatia, aids for the visually impaired are provided by the company Tiflotehna, which is solely owned by CBU. Their product range is seemingly smaller than in Tyflopomůcky shop run by SONS, but aside from minor aids, it also covers the area of more sophisticated technologies, such as Braille displays or the JAWS screen reader. Tiflotehna also creates Braille labels and tactile graphics for organizations that wish to be accessible. For this, they use UV printing technology, which is not so known in Czech Republic.

One of the Croatian institutions that has been very successful in ensuring accessibility for the visually impaired is The Zagreb City Museum. Its staff kindly showed us many tactile exhibits. Some were tactile models or replicas, while others were genuine historical originals that we could get to know through touch. Many of them were equipped with Braille descriptions. While our sighted colleagues, looking at real monuments in the city, lamented that many historical buildings were obscured by scaffolding due to renovations, in the museum, we, as blind individuals, had the chance to familiarize ourselves with many of them through high-quality tactile models. The Zagreb City Museum is thus an example of really good practice in making exhibits accessible to the visually impaired, and a visit there is definitely recommended for travelers, not just those with visual impairments.

In the realm of culture, we cannot omit the Croatian Library for the Blind. In its very nice and modernized premises, the director introduced us to the library's productions as well as supplementary activities for readers. The library focuses on the creation of audiobooks, similar to Czech KTN library. Titles in electronic text formats, such as those offered by Czech KDD for instance, are not easy to get in Croatia. However, their collection of audiobooks comprises tens of thousands of items, and the books are provided in the modern DAISY format, which allows easy navigation through chapters or other sections of the book. Unlike the Czech KTN, its Croatian counterpart also organizes intriguing events for its readers, such as literary discussions, knowledge competitions, and even a competition in the use of Braille.

The third truly interesting cultural topic in Zagreb was our meeting with members of the theater of the visually impaired, Novi život. While in the Czech Republic, cultural activities for the blind and visually impaired often revolve around music, theater has a longstanding tradition in Croatia. The theatrical company of the visually impaired has been operating in Zagreb for decades. The CBU owns a theater hall that can accommodate more than 300 spectators, and Novi život holds 30 to 50 performances there annually. The Croatians also regularly host an international theater festival called Blind in Theatre.

Our visit to the Silver center, located near Zagreb and operating independently from the CBU, left a significant impression on us. Although it was initially introduced to us as a guide dog school, it turned out that the center also focuses on mobility training and functions as a residential rehabilitation facility. Like the CBU, Silver offers its services not only to adults but also to children and their parents. Silver is housed in a modern, single-story building that includes double rooms for clients, communal areas, a room dedicated to working with young children, areas for veterinarians, kennels and a kitchen for dogs, as well as all other necessary amenities. The entire center is surrounded by a garden, which, besides offering relaxation, can also be used for practicing mobility. The training of dogs and work with clients follow a meticulous methodology. A potential advantage for clients is that they can simultaneously address mobility training and the use of guide dogs in one place, whereas in our country, these are two services provided by two, albeit affiliated, organizations.

On the third day, we concluded our working trip in the resort of Premantura on the Istrian coast, where we moved with our Croatian hosts. The CBU has built and now operates a recreational center for the visually impaired here. During the summer season, organized events take place, but the center is also available for individual visually impaired people and their families. Blind and visually impaired individuals can spend their holidays in an accessible and friendly environment, avoiding typical issues associated with mainstream stays, such as buffet-style dining, complex navigation in hotels, and on beaches, etc. The entire center, including its adjoining garden, is equipped with navigational elements for the blind. There is also a room for wheelchair visitors, and a nearby accessible beach. This beach even has a special entrance for wheelchair users. The beach is paved and features guiding lines leading to the water's steps. From the perspective of the visually impaired, the more essential feature might be that from the sea entrance, an artificial guiding line in the form of a rope with small buoys is directly in the water. Alongside it, one can move further away from the shore, connected to a similar perpendicular rope several hundred meters long. Thanks to this, a blind swimmer can comfortably swim and always safely return to the beach following the rope.

The colleagues from CBU are inclined towards the potential use of their center in Premantura by visually impaired individuals from the Czech Republic in the future. We also anticipate that contacts will be established between the Guide Dog Training Center and its Croatian counterpart, and we will be happy to facilitate contact between Croatian theater artists and the Czech company Verva. We will strive to ensure that cooperation takes place wherever it makes sense for both parties. At the same time, we at SONS are preparing for the upcoming visit of our colleagues from CBU in Prague. We hope that the exchange of experiences will continue and that we will introduce our services and activities that will be also inspiring for them.

Written by: Jan Šnyrych, Vice-president of Czech Blind United