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Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Isolated Lives: In Russia, Handicapped People Most Often Get Overlooked, but Conscious Efforts Are Now Being Made to Integrate Those Who Have Disabilities into Society

Disabled Boy in Wheelchair Being Moved Across Steps
As Russia's public transport system and buildings still have hardly any facilities for physically disabled people, many of them live their lives in forced seclusion. Most normal schools are not accessible to disabled children, and professional possibilities for disabled adults are even fewer. About ten percent of Russia's population is disabled ­ some 15 million people, six million of which are of a working age. Of these, 85 percent are unemployed, data from the Health Ministry for 2009 shows.

At the end of March, President Dmitry Medvedev signed a Health Ministry plan that should help solve many problems that disabled people encounter on a daily basis. Between 2011 and 2015, 49 billion rubles ($1.76 billion) will be spent through the "Accessible Surroundings" program, meant to "increase the level and quality of life of disabled people," "to increase the effectiveness of their rehabilitation through the accessibility of social facilities," and "to increase their social activity," the program description states. In practice, this should translate into subtitles on television for the deaf, accessible busses and buildings for those in a wheelchair, and better employment opportunities for everyone.

Slowly but surely, the idea that a disabled person should have the same rights as any other individual, including the freedom to choose an employer, is becoming more popular in the Russian society. "We want disabled people to become more attractive as employees on the open labor market," Gregory Lekaryev, the head of the Health Ministry's Disability Department, said at a round table conference organized by television channel Dozhd in May.

Currently, government employment programs mainly work through big countrywide organizations for the disabled, such as the All-Russian Society of the Blind, the All-Russian Society of the Deaf, and the All-Russian Society of the Disabled. These have their own workplaces where they employ members. The work placements consist almost exclusively of small to mid-sized factories, where anything from carton packages to light switches is produced. But while setting up production that only employs disabled people may be cheap and straightforward, do the handicapped really want to be pigeonholed into this type of employment?

Tigran Gregorian suffers from celebral palsy, a motor condition that causes physical disability. After many fruitless attempts to find regular employment, where he was told the same thing over and over again: "great resume, we'll call you," he was offered a job as a lawyer at the Moscow office of Clifford Chance, a British law firm. He has been enjoying his work there for two years now. "I didn't want to work at a place with only disabled people, I am against that kind of separation. I am sure that working with just the disabled would have stopped my development," he said.

Western societies try to assimilate their disabled instead of segregating them, and isolated workplaces have all but disappeared. But at the Dozhd conference, Lekaryev said: "Traditionally we support, and continue to support, companies that are founded by the all-Russian societies of the disabled. There are quite a lot of these, and as a rule, they take on exclusively disabled people." For those in Russia who choose to find employment through the general labor market, the options are quite limited.

Under the current law, if the staff of a company exceeds 100 people, at least four percent of this staff should be made up of disabled people. However, many employers prefer to pay the fine rather than meeting the obligatory quota, or falsely mark other employees as disabled. The companies that systematically hire disabled people through the general Russian labor market are mainly Western multinationals, such as KPMG, Johnson & Johnson, Hewlett Packard, and McDonald's.

Yelena Arafyeva, a human resources director at the Moscow office of an international transport company DPD, elaborated on why Russian companies lag behind when it comes to hiring disabled employees. "The director of a company needs to be supportive of hiring disabled people, but it seems that many Russian employers still fear taking the step. They imagine that disabled workers are a burden rather than an asset; they fear that they won't be productive and won't be accepted by the other workers. On top of that, many fear complicated legal and administrative procedures and that the disabled worker will be in the hospital all the time," she said.

The Perspektiva NGO develops programs to help bring handicapped people into regular companies. The NGO has a resume database (including profiles of which tasks and which special care the respective disabled need) and provides training for people who have disabled co-workers. These kinds of complementary services are missing from the government's programs, and that's why employers are wary of hiring people with limited abilities, Denise Roza, the director of Perspektiva, said. "If you're an employer thinking, 'I want to hire someone with disabilities,' then what do you do? Most employers have no idea where to find a disabled person, and most employment agencies really don't know where the disabled capable of working are, nor do they know how to help people with disabilities find jobs. So basically, we became the link between people with disabilities and employers," Roza said.

Arafyeva discovered that most reservations employers have about hiring disabled people are unfounded. She praises the emancipatory effect that employing disabled people has had on her company. "A lot of stereotypes exist about disabled people. But after we started hiring disabled employees, their non-disabled co-workers quickly found out that disabled people are just like other people, with the good and the bad qualities that everybody has. We have several disabled people working for us, and some are better than others, some are nicer than others, just like everybody else," she said.

Russians seem to be inherently awkward about disabled people. One explanation is that they are very rarely seen, and hence most people are not used to dealing with them. The other reason may be rooted in the Soviet Union, when there was little room for individuals to deviate from the ideal "homo Sovieticus." Julia Bessonova, a 31-year-old who was paralyzed from the waist down in an accident, said: "In the Soviet Union, the government didn't want to see us as people. We were just ignored. Ramps were nowhere to be found, and even buying a wheelchair proved a challenge."

As a result, Julia spent the bigger part of her life at home, where she also received schooling. It's this kind of schooling that Michael Terentyev, a Paralympic athlete turned Duma Deputy for United Russia, has been fighting against ever since he entered the Duma. Terentyev told Russia Profile that current schooling for the disabled, which consists either of home schooling or special schools where only disabled kids go, prevents disabled children from developing the right social skills. This set them back when they want to be part of the regular society and want to find a regular job.

Julia, like Terentyev, did successfully re-integrate in society. She went on to study English and French at Moscow State University, and now works as an English teacher at school 518. Julia's car and apartment have been adapted to her needs, and school 518 is equipped with an elevator. Her commute from her Moscow apartment to work is almost as easy as everyone else's.

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