17 Mar 2014

No Go Russia: the fight for disability rights in Russia

Russians are very proud of their Paralympians but on the streets disabled people are conspicuous by their absence, Kate Ansell reports.

Travelling in Russia, one thing is very apparent: it’s a country that loves its Paralympians – everyone wants to talk about them.

This isn’t surprising: in London 2012, the Russian Paralympic team outperformed its non-disabled counterparts and, as expected, they’ve topped the medal table in Sochi.

But on the street, disabled people are conspicuous by their absence.

A fortnight before the Sochi Paralympics opened, I travelled across Russia to meet a few of its less superhuman disabled residents.

There are around thirteen million of them in total, not that you’d know that at a casual glance. I’m disabled myself and, at first, was conscious of how few visibly disabled people you see around.

I figured I might be imagining it until I met Vladimir in Petrozavdsk, near the Finnish border. He told me friends of his have gone to Finland on holiday and returned with tales of how Finland is “full of” wheelchair users – or maybe they just find it easier to get around.

It’s not difficult to find disabled people in Russia if you know where to look: yes, some still languish in institutions abandoned by their parents, but there are many disabled people fighting to have a better future, and real signs of hope: a disabled darts and drafts social club advising the local mayor on accessible buildings; a mother taking on the authorities to get more accessible housing for her son.

In Petrozavdsk I met Paralympic torchbearer Faridun, a fifteen-year-old who has cerebral palsy, excels at schools and was bemused by the question when I asked him what barriers he faces because of his impairment.

Separate schools

Faridun goes to a school specifically for disabled students, and prefers it to the mainstream school he used to attend.

In the UK, this might be surprising, but in Russia, it’s not. Parents do have the right to send their disabled children to mainstream school, but this is often difficult for practical reasons, and segregated education is pretty typical.

Perspektiva, Russia’s main disability NGO, has a campaign promoting inclusive education and some disabled students are now choosing the mainstream route.

There are problems, particularly in regard to accessible housing – in Petrozavdsk, Lyudmilla has lived in a one room bedsit on the fifth floor of an apartment block all her adult life.

She’s deafblind and finds it impossible to get downstairs by herself, as a result, she rarely goes out at all.

In Orekhovo-Zuevo, Tatiana lives on the third floor with her disabled son, Koyla. They are fighting the authorities to move to a ground floor flat but, after years of battling, are no closer to a resolution.

What’s striking is that Russia does have new legislation promoting disability equality: it’s recently signed the UN Convention on Rights of Disabled People, and it has an accessible environment programme designed to ensure new buildings, and a proportion of new housing, is accessible.

Some cities are introducing accessible public transport.

The trouble is, none of the legislation means anything unless it is successfully implemented which, in Russia, means convincing the local authorities in your region to take notice of it.

Mind the gap

As a disabled person visiting Russia for the first time, it was like a reminder of the UK twenty or thirty years ago: people are beginning to realise that disabled people should have equal rights, and some of the authorities have begun to recognise that too.

But there is a huge gap between this recognition and the reality. The only way anything is going to change in practice for disabled people in Russia is if people fight to change it.

For me, the exhilarating thing about making this report was was the energy of the disabled people there who are realising that, for the first time, they do have legal rights, and have taken it upon themselves to see that they are honoured.

It’s true that Russia has a very, very long way to go before its disabled people are treated equally. But it also has a movement of strong disabled people who are going to push to ensure that eventually, they will be.