March 10, 2014

On March 7, the Sochi 2014 Winter Paralympic Games opened with beautifully choreographed performances. Thousands of spectators watched from the stands. A dance routine included performers in wheelchairs, and a performer with a physical disability sang.

Performers with disabilities, however, appeared to be the exception:  dancers formed an image of the Russian flag in the stadium center, and no one among them had a visible disability. An ice breaker meant to symbolize the breaking up of stereotypes entered the stadium, and the man and little girl who emerged to meet it also lacked disabilities. Dancers without visible disabilities then assembled the resulting ice cubes to spell out the word “together.”

The situation outside the stadium and across Russia mirrors the performance in the Paralympic Opening Ceremonies, where portrayals of the breaking up of stereotypes do little to bring Russian residents with disabilities into view.

People with disabilities arriving for the Paralympics last week found infrastructural barriers in Sochi, so that wheelchair users – athletes and visitors alike – were not able to navigate Sochi and the Olympic Park without assistance. Visitors cited to journalists obstacles such as raised sidewalk borders and a cafe with an accessibility sticker but lacking a ramp. Sochi’s non-visitors – its residents – with disabilities have for a long time struggled with barriers. Some struggle even to leave their apartments – Mariaand Sergeirecently told Human Rights Watch that they spend most of their time confined to apartment buildings that lack elevators.

Beyond Sochi, the situation for many people with disabilities in Russia is similar: in the Moscow region city of Orekhovo-Zuyevo, Nikolai Titkov, a young man who uses a wheelchair, is preparing an appeal to the city court, which has failed to enforce a September 2012 regional court ruling obligating the city to relocate the family to an accessible apartment.

During the ceremony, both Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee Chair Dmitry Chernyshenko and International Paralympic Committee President Sir Philip Craven announced that the Paralympics marked a turning point for better accessibility for Russians with disabilities. The games certainly can be, but only if the Russian government commits to making people with disabilities visible and engaged members of society.