Written collaboratively by RSW’s Disability Studies Working Group
In mid-May, 2021, members of RSW’s Disability Studies Working Group met via Zoom with Dickinson College Russian Department faculty Alyssa DeBlasio and Izolda Savenkova to workshop Unit 2 of DeBlasio and Savenkova’s in-process textbook for advanced Russian language learners, Pro-Dvizhenie: Advanced Russian through Film and Media. The textbook, currently under contract with Georgetown University Press and scheduled for publication in late 2022, uses an inquiry-based curriculum based around contemporary film. The curriculum takes into account the interests of “Generation Z” learners and addresses pressing social and philosophical questions to build civic dispositions among students.
Unit 2, entitled “Мир неограниченных возможностей,” or “World of unlimited possibilities,” focuses specifically on issues of disability and inclusion in Russia. To our knowledge this is the first Russian textbook in the U.S. to foreground the experiences of people with disabilities, and the RSW’s Disability Studies Working Group was very excited to read the chapter, provide feedback from our various points of view, and discuss the material with the authors.
DSWG members who participated in the workshop include:
- Jerry Mercury, neurodivergent self-advocate filmmaker from St. Petersburg;
- Vera Trubnikova, professional audio descriptor, staff member of NGO Perspektiva, and coordinator of the annual Breaking Down Barriers International Disability Film Festival in Moscow;
- Alexandra Kurlenkova, PhD candidate in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University;
- Svetlana Borodina, cultural anthropologist and Postdoctoral research scholar at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University; and
- Sarah Phillips, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Byrnes Russian and East European Institute at Indiana University.
The workshop discussion emphasized the diversity of experience and perspectives among people with disabilities, and within and between various disability communities in Russia. We brainstormed approaches for underscoring this diversity and encouraging students to engage with different points of view. Participants recommended the inclusion of dynamic first-person perspectives—including stories from self-advocates—to introduce students to different voices and perspectives in disability and allied communities. Voices from the community add a vital disability justice perspective.
Workshop participants agreed that teaching about disability issues through film is a great approach for sensitizing students to the ways in which disability is often framed in metaphorical or symbolic terms. What stereotypes about people with disabilities are embedded in film representations? Why? What messages about disability do these metaphors and stereotypes convey? These are important questions for students to consider as they think through issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The discussion also foregrounded questions of terminology and vocabulary. The textbook introduces students to important resources and guides for talking about disability in the Russian language—such as the dictionary “мы так не говорим” (we don’t use such words) at Takie Dela, and the language and etiquette guidelines provided by the Disability NGO “Perspektiva” in Moscow. At the same time, workshoppers underscored the ongoing debates within and between communities about preferred terminology: some reject the label “invalid,” while others are reclaiming this Soviet-era identity. Some prefer person-first language (“person with a disability”), while others prefer identity-first language (“disabled person”). We discussed strategies for emphasizing to students that there are no universal “rules:” norms are constantly changing and preferences vary from person to person. As Unit 2 states, when speaking about and to disability communities and people with disabilities “we should take cues from community members and experts as language norms develop.”
The group also brainstormed strategies to give students hands-on experience with accessibility exercises: students could practice creating subtitles; creating alt text to images; and composing texts in plain language, for example, to make content more accessible for non-sighted people, non-hearing people, and others.
One of the main “texts” featured in Unit 2 is the 1998 feature film “Страна глухих” (World of the deaf) directed by Valeriy Todorovskii. The film follows the friendship of two women, Yaya, who is deaf, and the hearing Rita, as they are embroiled in a conflict between the “Deaf mafia” and a rival mafia in Moscow. Workshop participants agreed that “World of the deaf” is a great film for prompting discussion about Deafness as an important cultural identity (not necessarily a “disability,” “loss,” or “deficit”) in Russia and elsewhere. We suggested how discussion questions about the film—and other exercises in the Unit—could move students from thinking about disability in terms of a “medical model” (where disability is seen as “loss” of health or function) towards alternative frameworks: a social model, a cultural model, or an empowerment model.
The RSW’s Disability Studies Working Group was delighted to collaborate with Alyssa DeBlasio and Izolda Savenkova on workshopping Unit 2, “Мир неограниченных возможностей,” of the advanced Russian textbook Pro-Dvizhenie: Advanced Russian through Film and Media. We commend the authors for centering content on disability issues for Russian language learners and wish them all the best with this important project!