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#17 - JRL 2008-103 - JRL Home
May 26, 2008
Russia: Disabled Still Largely 'Invisible' In Society
By Chloe Arnold
Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

MOSCOW/KAZAN -- Life isn't easy for Zifa Sadriyeva. For the past 15 years, since a disease of the central nervous system left her paralyzed and barely able to move, the 52-year-old has used a wheelchair.

Her husband, too, is disabled. Sadriyeva has a job -- she works from home, making cardboard folders for a local office-supplies company. But the work pays just 1,000 rubles ($40) a month, hardly enough to cover expenses for food and the medications she and her husband need.

All the same, it is a job, she says, something most disabled people in Russia do not have. By law, employment agencies in Russia are obliged to seek out work for disabled people. But the reality is very different, according to Sadriyeva.

"What they offer at the job centers for disabled people simply isn't suitable for us. They are all low-paid jobs," she says. "It is so humiliating. The idea of working cheers anyone up, especially disabled people like us. I know disabled people who were offered jobs like nursery-school teacher or boiler worker. Men are offered jobs as plumbers; but tell me, can a disabled person work as a plumber?"

In Tatarstan, as in the rest of Russia, companies are legally obliged to employ a certain percentage of people with disabilities. But Dania Galiullina, a spokesman for Tatarstan's Labor and Employment Ministry, says most companies simply ignore the law.

"Companies that refuse to employ disabled people have to pay fines," Galiullina says, "but the amount of the fine is so low, most companies prefer to accept that they are breaking the law and just pay the fine."

Out Of Sight

According to the United Nations, 14 million Russians are disabled. But it's rare that you will see a wheelchair user, a person with Down's Syndrome, or a blind person on the streets.

Denise Roza, director of Perspektiva, an NGO that champions the rights of people with disabilities in Russia, says that during the Soviet period, people with disabilities were almost never seen.

"Most disabled people were invisible. They had no rights, there was no legislation. It was as if they weren't there -- I mean they weren't out in the community," Roza says. "If you ask disabled people who lived through the Soviet era, they'll tell you that, that 'We were invisible.'"

Two prominent Soviet societies that began operating in the 1920s did much to help certain areas of the disabled community: the blind and the deaf. But children with developmental disabilities, including Down's Syndrome and cerebral palsy, were mostly taken away from their families and put into institutions, Roza says, where they received little, if any, education.

"Back in the Soviet times, there was no expectation that children with intellectual disabilities would go to school -- if they stayed in the family, and that was very unlikely." Roza says. "There were all kinds of negative stereotypes about children with disabilities, so [these] people were very isolated from the community. There was no such thing as making the community accessible. No one ever thought about that."

Today, Roza says, the emphasis for disabled children is to include them in ordinary schools, rather than sending them to specialist institutions, where they are cut off from the rest of society.

"Children need to be with their families, they need to be near their homes. And they need to have a community. But that argument unfortunately doesn't always work, because we have special educators [in Russia] -- they call themselves 'defektologists,' a term that we dislike -- who tell us that children are better off in this other setting," Roza says. "All you have to do is look around you to see that you don't see people with disabilities, because they've been isolated in special institutions. We meet a lot of these people when they're 18, 19, 20, and it's very hard to find them jobs, because they're not ready to go off to work, because they don't have social skills; they don't have a network."

Societal Friction

This different approach causes some friction between the more traditionalist groups of people with disabilities in Russia and groups that take their leads from Western organizations.

"On the whole, we support integration, because the main aim of our society is to integrate the deaf person into society, into ordinary society," says Aleksandr Ivanov, the head of the Rehabilitation Department at the Russian Society for the Deaf, which has 200,000 members across the country. "The trouble is that this is very individual -- one deaf child might be able to study at an ordinary school using special equipment, but there are other children who, for various reasons, find it very difficult to learn, and so of course it's better for them to go to specialist schools."

Natalia Prisetskaya has been in a wheelchair since a spinal injury left her paralyzed in the lower half of her body at the age of 15. Not only did she lose many of her teenage years, her confinement to a wheelchair meant her studies were cut short, for the simple reason that she wasn't physically able to get to her lectures.

"After my accident, I went to university to study," Prisetskaya says. "But it was very difficult because there were so many stairs, and because of that I gave up my studies."

Only now, at 34, has she completed a degree in economics, half a lifetime after she began.

Nevertheless, more traditional schools are starting to accept children with disabilities. In Moscow alone, 10 schools now take children with developmental disabilities, blind and deaf children, and children in wheelchairs -- and more are expected to welcome these children in the near future.

Citizens In Peril

For Pavel Opiyev, who has been blind since birth, integrating into society was less difficult than for his peers. His was a rare case: his mother taught at the local school, so unlike most blind children he was able to study at a mainstream school for a few years before he was sent for more specialized education. His main complaint about Russia is how difficult it is, as a disabled person, to get around.

"Taking into account that in Moscow nothing at all is very accessible, then, yes, [it's very difficult]," Opiyev says. "In Russia there aren't that many disabled people who can find the strength to move around on their own. And you can understand why: Our public transport system isn't just inaccessible, it's downright dangerous. You take your life in your hands. On the metros and on buses, nothing is provided for disabled passengers. And on the streets, perhaps only one in 10 traffic lights emits a [coded audible signal for blind pedestrians]."

In the last few years, Opiyev, who is 28, has twice been knocked down by a car, and has nearly fallen beneath an underground train on several occasions.

At Perspektiva, Roza's top priority today is to persuade the government to adopt the new UN convention on disabled rights. She is positive about the future, particularly after a recent speech given by the new Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, in which he promised to take greater steps to help the country's disabled population.

"This was an issue we did not talk about at all for a long time," Medvedev said. "But the situation is changing now, and the state has made this issue one of its priorities."

In Prisetskaya's estimation, life is starting to improve, albeit slowly, for Russians with disabilities.

"I think we have more opportunities than before because society is starting to change, rather a lot, and it seems to me that these days it's difficult to force someone to stay at home," Prisetskaya says. "Also, you see more and more disabled people on television, on the streets. You see more and more how people who are disabled are leading ordinary lives."

RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service contributed to this report.