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Portrait of the month - Jessica Schröder

Q: Hello, Jessica, and welcome to the first episode of our new column "Portrait of the month". It's great to open it with your inspiring story!

A: Thanks a lot.

Q: So, are you totally blind since birth?

A: Yes.

Q: How old are you?

A: 33, I was born in 1983.

Q: Where were you born?

A: In the eastern part of Germany, when it was still the German Democratic Republic.

Q: Did you study in a mainstream or special school?

A: In a special school, as in the German Democratic Republic blind children, and disabled children in general, were not allowed to attend mainstream schools. Besides, my parents didn't really want me to go to a mainstream school, I don't know why... I suspect they were happier if I stayed at a boarding school, because they (especially my mother) perceived me more as a burden.

Q: So, did you complete your secundary education at this special school?

A: No, for high school I went to Hamburg, in the northern part of Germany. It was also a special school, but I lived in my own flat from the age of 18.

Q: Did you go to university afterwards?

A: Yes, I went to study Social Work in Berlin. It was pretty boring and definitely not fulfilling, but at first I really didn't know what else to do. I had done an internship for a year, in an organization for disabled people supporting the independent living movement, and I had found it really inspiring and interesting. I knew for sure that I wanted to do something else with them in the future, because I had organized many things for them...

Q: Was the organization in Berlin as well?

A: No, it was in Hamburg. I learned a lot there, as it was a cross-disability organization, much like the European Disability Forum. They did a lot of political work and I helped them organize lobby campaigns, art exhibitions with disabled artists... I really loved working there. They were very kind-hearted but also extremely knowledgeable, and they really taught me a lot, also about the context of disability and how it could affect my own life, and what role society should play in that.

Q: And how old were you at the time?

A: I was 19: I had just finished high school and I wanted to do something different before starting university. After the internship, I went to study Social Work in Berlin because I liked the city a lot, I had many friends there etc.

Q: At university, did you maybe feel that your studies were solely accademic, but that they were not actually reflecting the interests and needs of disabled people?

A: Yes, it was quite dull. Even projects dealing with disability were too theoretical and not really interesting. I really wanted to do something practical to help blind people though, and that's why I started a project with an Austrian friend of mine: a touring guide for blind and partially sighted people called "Berlin für Blinde". We looked for tourist attractions which could be of interest also to people with sight problems and developed a website where we put audio descriptions of the attractions (with precise directions, so that blind visitors could know exactly how to get there), reports, recordings, pictures etc. We also looked for testers who could visit the place using our guide and give us feedback on their experience.

Q: After university, did you try to do something that would get you more engaged in the world of disability?

A: I actually wasn't sure whether I wanted to do something with disability. That's why, while I was still studying, I worked as a volunteer with a crisis line. I did that for two years, with night shifts almost every week, and I liked it a lot. Also, I'd always been interested in development work in less developed countries: I had been in Senegal when I was younger and I had helped a hospital get medicines from Germany and Europe. That's why in 2009, right after graduating, I decided to attend a course in India called "International Institute for Social Enterpreneurs", so for people who wanted to make a change with their own hands rather than through an organization: people who either wanted to set up their own organization or at least try to influence society in a positive manner. I was in the first batch and stayed in India for a year, attending classes such as fundraising, social management, public speaking, media resource development etc.

Q: So the course didn't have anything to do with disability, right?

A: No, but it did in a way, as it was attended by many disabled people from developed countries.

Q: And why do you think that was?

A: Because I think that, especially in less developed countries, a lot of disabled people feel that they are less empowered to change anything in society and that they are not well integrated and have less of a chance to get a job. So I believe they had this intrinsic motivation to try and get the right knowledge and tools to really make a change.

Q: What about the course organizers? The fact that you were blind didn't pose any problem to them?

A: No, because the founder, Sabriye Tenberken, was blind herself: she was German and set up the first blind school in Tibet.

Q: That must've made it a bit easier, as I imagine it's not that easy to go to such a different country as a blind person.

A: Well, the campus was in a small village and, even though it was quite big (we had a lake, a big dormitory etc.), it was quite easy to navigate. We also had some extra tasks besides the school subjects: cleaning the whole campus, helping with cooking etc. Things got much more complicated later on, when I travelled through India on my own, after an internship.

Q: What did you do after the course? Did you understand a bit better what you wanted to do with your life?

A: After going to Sri Lanka to extend my visa, I stayed in India for 5 more months, exploring the country. My initial intention was to stay and set up my own organization, so I visited many special schools, both for blind and for physically and mentally challenged people, to try and understand how the system worked. I spent some weeks there and tried to support the teams in various schools, but it wasn't easy: Indians have the tendency to only tell you the good side of things, completely omitting the negative aspects. They never asked for help or admitted when something was wrong, which made working with them very difficult.

Q: Did you only speak English, or did you also learn some local dialect?

A: As I spent a lot of time in Tamil Nadu, a federal state close to Sri Lanka, I learned some basics of Tamil. But yes, I mostly spoke English.

Q: Why did you decide to go back to Germany in the end?

A: Because I was running out of money, so I couldn't really do much there anymore. In Germany, I didn't feel comfortable enough to set up my own organization, as there was much competition going on. So I started looking for a job, and I found a good one in a blind organization. However, it is quite disappointing that all the other organizations I applied to, that had nothing to do with disability, turned me down: I must have sent 90 applications!

Q: So do you reckon that it's still very hard for blind people to get a job outside the blind community?

A: Yes, I think so. Maybe they can get a job through acquaintances who tell the employer that they are reliable and trustworthy... but not if they just turn up out of the blue.

Q: What were your responsibilities in the blind organization?

A: I was youth coordinator: I organized a lot of festivals and seminars, tried to encourage voluntary work (I also had a volunteer from Spain), etc. I didn't find it very fulfilling though, as I wanted to do something more influential, political maybe: I wanted to have a real impact on the lives of blind people, not just organize small-scale events. That's why I quit the job after two years (even though they wanted me to stay), as soon as I heard that the post of Head of International Relations at the German Federation of Blind and Partially Sighted (DBSV) had become vacant. The application process wasn't easy, but I finally got the job. However, they were nice enough to allow me to do a 6-month mobility exchange in Liège, in order to improve my French. I worked at VIEWS International and did pretty much the same things that EVS volunteers do: I helped them write project applications, developed my own project, etc.

Q: So, did you go to Liège before starting to work as Head of International Relations?

A: Yes. The former Head of International Relations, whom I had to replace, was due to work until June, but I got the job much earlier (they wanted to make sure they'd have the post filled once he left) and was allowed to go to Liège between February and August.

Q: Did you like your experience in Belgium?

A: Yes, I really did, though I struggled a lot with French in the beginning!

Q: So, you've been working as Head of International Relations for two years now. How do you like it? Do you feel like you're finally making a real difference, or do you have the impression that there's too much burocracy, as it's often the case in such big organizations?

A: At first I really liked it, but now I've started to realize that there is a lot of burocracy going on, and that processes are very long and slow. It's mostly research work behind a desk, actually.

Q: Would you rather be on the field helping people?

A: Yes, I think so. I know that that's definitely more my cup of tea, as I haven't stopped being active in that respect: for instance, I keep doing voluntary work at my former high school in Hamburg, helping pupils get on with the organization... We also established a small network... I organized some peer support sessions and took part in a project called "Strength through solidarity", together with Anca David from VIEWS International...

Q: You definitely achieved a lot, and I'm sure many readers will be quite amazed by reading your interview.

A: I don't know... it's true that I did many things, but I never saw them as big achievements. I just tried them, but it doesn't mean that I was never afraid or that I was always sure or confident! I just thought "OK, there isn't much to do, so I just need to try what's there!". My philosophy has always been to try and live the way I wanted to live... maybe not exactly to the fullest, as there are still some things missing, but I think that everyone should try to achieve what makes him or her happy! And if this means going out in the field, that's great; but if it means sitting on a couch and watching TV, that's also fine: I don't think that everyone has to do all the things that someone else does, it has more to do with what you feel within yourself. I believe it's also very important to get in contact with many people and try to exchange opinions and ideas, look on different platforms... I did it a lot when I was in India for the second time (I will go again soon for four weeks by the way): I used CouchSurfing a lot, as well as hospitality clubs. It's so easy to connect with people nowadays, so I would really encourage blind people to make the most of that: be active in your community of course, but also try to spread your wings and broaden your horizons, reaching out to other people just to see how they do things etc.

Q: Aren't you afraid when you travel alone using CouchSurfing and other such services? Being blind doesn't hold you back at all?

A: No, I try to meet with people in public places and it has worked very well so far.

Q: Would you say that you were a very independent person in terms of mobility and daily living skills when you started travelling? Maybe also thanks to the special school you attended?

A: When I was a child I wasn't very independent, because I had many partially sighted friends who helped me all the time. But when I was in Hamburg I realized that I really needed to get more independent, as I wanted to do my own things and didn't want to be restricted. So I think that I learned a lot in the blind school, and that I just needed to put it into practice. So yes, I would say I have become quite independent and good with orientation.

Q: I guess that must've helped you a lot when you went to India. Do you think that travelling there wouldn't have been possible without excellent mobility skills?

A: No, it definitely wouldn't have been possible: India is really hard even if you have good mobility skills. Everything is different: there are no pavements and you have to walk in the street next to cars and litters... there are so many people, everything is crazy... but it works somehow.

Q: So would you encourage blind people to focus on mobility and daily living skills as early as possible?

A: Yes, I believe that those are skills that should be mastered as early as possible, because they basically help you to do everything. You can be an outstanding student, but if you don't know how to walk, cook your own food and wash your own clothes, it will be extremely hard to find a job, get around and meet new interesting people, as you'll always be sitting on the same spot, literally speaking [laughs].

Q: So you live in Berlin. Can I ask you if you're married and have a family?

A: No, unfortunately not, I live alone and I'm single right now. I had a boyfriend, but it didn't work out very well and it still makes me very upset actually.

Q: Do you prefer to date blind or sighted people? Or is it just the same for you?

A: I had a few sighted boyfriends... When I was younger, I used to think that dating sighted people was awesome, but now it really makes no difference to me: I just want to have a nice boyfriend [laughs].

Q: Do you feel like you're more comfortable with blind boyfriends in certain aspects of life, or it really doesn't matter to you?

A: It really doesn't matter, as I've reached a level of self-confidence where I really don't mind making mistakes in front of sighted people. Of course, sometimes it's easier with blind people, because certain things are much more immediate with them... but I don't mind spilling something on the table in front of a sighted boyfriend [laughs]. With sighted people everything is quicker of course, but at the end of the day what counts is not to which extent you can use your boyfriend, but how you can talk and get physically along with him.

Q: Well, I think that's all, unless you've got something to add. Thank you very much for your inspiring story, Jessica.