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St. Petersburg Wheelchair Ban In Metro Highlights Plight Of Russia's Handicapped

ST. PETERSBURG -- Aleksei Kuzmin has been banned from the St. Petersburg metro after using it his whole life to get around the city.

The reason? He is handicapped and confined to a wheelchair. Late last month, St. Petersburg authorities began enforcing what they say was an existing ban after a girl in a wheelchair had an accident on a metro escalator. Yuliya Shavel, a spokeswoman for the metro, said wheelchair-users are a danger to themselves and others on the steep escalators that descend into the city's cavernous subway system.

But sitting in Yekaterina Park in downtown St. Petersburg, the 33-year-old Kuzmin believes he and other handicapped passengers pose no danger on the metro and bristles at what he sees as prejudice against the disabled.

"They are humiliating us," he says. "It's discrimination. It is as if the metro is only for the fit."

File Photo of Handicapped Russian Boy in Wheelchair Being Forced to Have His Wheelchair Dragged Over Steps
file photo of Russian handicapped peson being forced to have his
wheelchair dragged across steps
The ban starkly illustrates the plight handicapped people face in Russia, which lags far behind the West in accommodating the disabled.

In St. Petersburg and other Russian cities, the absence of ramps and elevators for the wheelchair-bound, which are an essential part of public infrastructure in Europe and North America, means they often must be carried up and down flights of stairs.

'No Chance Of Interacting Normally'

The 55-year old metro system is one of the few modes of transport in Saint Petersburg that wheelchair-users are able to use and the ban leaves many stranded -- a situation that will only worsen during the port city's bitterly cold winters.

Nadezhda Kapkova, a 48-year old woman from Gagarin, a town thirty kilometers from St. Petersburg, says despite the lack of infrastructure supporting the handicapped, she has always viewed larger Russian cities as relative havens for the disabled.

"Practically speaking, using a wheelchair in the provinces is impossible," she says. "There are no means [of transport] accessible, there's no chance of working, no chance of interacting normally. But big cities offer an opportunity for self-realization."

But with the ban on wheelchairs in the metro, Kapkova thinks those opportunities to move around freely will now be severely curtailed. She adds that disabled people are capable of judging what they can and cannot do safely.

Under The Federal Spotlight

"The point is the disabled are all in their right minds," she says. "If their arms aren't strong enough to hold on, they won't go on the escalator."

The wheelchair ban came under the federal spotlight when a Moscow newspaper published an appeal to Saint Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko, written by a disabled student who was turned away at the turnstiles.

The Public Chamber, a state advisory body, has called the ban "a violation of federal law" and the city's rights ombudsman, Aleksei Kozyrev, has promised to "get to the bottom of this and take charge of it all the way to the finish line."

But Shavel, the metro spokeswoman, says officials are obliged to stop wheelchairs entering since documentation from the factory that produces the escalators stipulates that they were not built for wheelchair use.

She says the ban does not apply at nine of St. Petersburg's 64 metro stations that do not have escalators, most of which are on the city's outskirts.

A Quick Solution Is 'Unrealistic'

Officials say they are exploring the possibility of installing ramps so that the handicapped can access the metro and say they hope to find a solution by August. According to press reports, the city is also looking into the possibility of installing special elevators for the handicapped in the metro.

But Sergei Timokhin, a 43-year old disabled man says solving the problem so quickly was "unrealistic."

According to statistics provided by the St. Petersburg Association of Societies of the Parents of Disabled Children, there are 8,988 wheelchair-users in the city, which has a population of roughly 6 million.

The problem, of course, is not confined to St. Petersburg. In Moscow, the city provides a special taxi service for the disabled, but it is necessary to book trips two weeks in advance according to a report in "The Moscow News." Moscow is also planning to build elevators in its metro stations to accommodate the disabled.

According to Kapkova, despite the difficulties, the handicapped face in a country where the word for disabled is still "invalid," lingering Soviet attitudes are slowly changing for the better:

"Their outlook before was very much - you're in the way, you're spoiling the view," she says. "Disabled people had to go and stay in the shadows somewhere."

Article copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036 http://www.rferl.org; article also appeared at: http://www.rferl.org/content/st_petersberg_subway_wheelchair_ban_highlights_plight_of_

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