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Moscow News
February 14, 2008
[Disabled] Equal Access at Work
By Rebeccah Billing

In December 2001, Russia's disabled population was given center stage when several disabled groups' representatives, invited to attend a government-sponsored assembly of public organizations, were almost denied access because their wheelchairs wouldn't fit through turnstiles at the Kremlin.

An embarrassed Vladimir Putin told the assembly: "Shame on us. The policies of the past made it impossible to integrate the disabled into society, even in the smallest ways. We need to make a complete overhaul of our attitudes and approaches."

Six years on, despite strong economic growth and the introduction of incentives for employers to hire disabled staff, people with disabilities remain underrepresented in the Russian workforce. The level of unemployment among Russians of working age with disabilities is currently around 85 percent, while overall national unemployment levels are just 6 percent. Prejudice and lack of access, information and education continue to bar disabled people from entering the workforce.

"There are very few companies that are ready to hire someone with disabilities," comments Marina Galasyuk, a young Muscovite who uses a wheelchair.

"Some employers say no immediately when they find out you are in a wheelchair, because they say that they don't have the facilities. In principal a disabled person can work anywhere but in practice to do that he or she will need special facilities and employers do not always want to provide them; they don't want to spend the time and the money," Galasyuk continues.

In recent years federal and regional governments have tried various ways to encourage businesses to employ more people with disabilities. In Moscow quotas recommend that businesses which employ more than 100 people ensure 4 percent of their workforce is made up of disabled people and other minority groups. However the quota only provides guidelines and there is no obligation for employers to adhere to it, in reality very few do.

Even in cities where legislation sets out mandatory quotas there is strong evidence that the quotas do little to increase employment levels among the disabled. Employers trying to dodge fines will arrange fictitious labor agreements with people with disabilities. These people do not work but receive a small sum of money in order to comply with legal requirements

Financial incentives, such as tax breaks on the wages of disabled people offered under federal law to employers have also had little success: "The tax privileges provided to employers often do not compensate the expenditure employers have to make to accommodate disabled workers," explains lawyer Sergei Gorbachev from Legis Group

Another important factor preventing businesses from taking up these incentives is the mountain of bureaucracy that comes attached. One organization working with Moscow businesses to help them navigate through the paperwork is the Russian NGO of disabled persons Perspektiva.

Perspektiva works to provide information to both employers and disabled job seekers by holding job fairs, publishing guides and maintaining a website at http://perspektiva-inva.ru

"We are working with businesses, giving them information, helping them find the right person," explains Denise Roza, director of Perspektiva.

"There is interest, there are businesses out there who are hiring disabled people. But at the same time many people have not seen disabled people in the community and have stereotypes about sick people.' We try to help them understand what disabled people can do by bringing employers and people with disabilities together to meet and talk," Roza continues.

Perspektiva also helps to raise the awareness and visibility of disabled people in the community through seminars and public events such as a recent film festival.

There are signs that greater provisions are being made for people with disabilities in Moscow; this week the Moscow metro announced that its second wheelchair-friendly station will open this year in May. The head of the Moscow Department of Education, Olga Larionova, also pledged 50 million rubles to reequip special classrooms for Moscow's disabled children.

Businesses are also signalling that they are becoming more open to the idea of employing disabled staff; Perspektiva now has a database of around 70 businesses in Moscow that will consider candidates with disabilities for job vacancies. These companies work with the NGO on various programs. It is through one of these programs, called path to career, that Marina Galasyuk recently found a position with one of Russia's leading investment banks, Renaissance Capital.

"I did face problems initially as the fact that I am in a wheelchair means that I am officially incapable of working, so I had to have my disability downgraded in order to get a work certificate. But now all the paper work is done I am looking forward to my new job and feeling very positive," says Galasyuk.

Russia still has a long way to go to successfully provide its disabled citizens with equal opportunity to find employment. But Roza suggests that this process will happen step by step:

"What we're looking for is companies to commit to hiring a just few people with disabilities; this way these people will gradually be integrated into society. Large schemes with companies promising to hire a hundred people with disabilities risk not working out and can lead to disabled people being isolated further."