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When I first crossed the doorstep of an American high school as a 17-year-old new immigrant from Russia, my jaw dropped – kids in wheelchairs were playing tag in the wide hall, a cute teen-age couple was communicating animatedly in what appeared to be sign language; a blind boy was walking next to a classmate laughing at some kind of a joke. I turned to my American cousin and asked in still rudimentary English, “Immigrants here sent to special handicapped school?”

He stared at me uncomprehending, not realizing that in my 10 years of Moscow schooling I never had classmates with disabilities. In fact, until I went to the United States in the early 90’s I hadn’t seen many people with disabilities. Back home they were next to invisible, confined to special institutions or their homes, as the concept of an inclusive society didn’t exist.

Certainly, over the last 20 years, conditions for people with disabilities in Russia have improved. In Moscow and other large cities, you can actually see ramps – well, at least in the city center  – or come across traffic lights equipped with a sound signal for the blind, or even find a few disability-friendly kindergartens and schools. However, people with disabilities are largely cut off from society and have very limited choices.

So, Russia’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in May signaled a great moment for the country’s more than 13 million citizens with disabilities. In practical terms, this long-awaited ratification means that Russia must now translate the guarantees in the convention into domestic legal reform and overcome the pervasive discrimination against people with disabilities. That is far from an easy task.

People with disabilities in Russia face a range of barriers that limit their participation in society. Public buildings and transportation are often inaccessible. People with mental disabilities are often forcibly confined to institutions for long periods of time. Pregnant women who have disabilities are coerced by medical professionals to have an abortion. Parents who give birth to a child with Down syndrome are still encouraged to give up their baby.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, only 2 percent of Russian schools have an inclusive education approach, in which children with and without disabilities attend school together. The government pledges to expand inclusive education to 50 percent of schools by 2015. But reaching that goal will require a comprehensive plan to improve school infrastructure, train teachers, and – last, but definitely not least – educate parents and the community as to why this is important and beneficial for society as a whole.

“So many things need to be done and you just cannot accomplish it all in one day,” said Denise Roza, an American who has lived almost half her life in Russia and runs the country’s leading disability capacity-building and advocacy organization, Perspektiva (Perspective).

“In addition to changing legislation and introducing all different kinds of concrete, tangible measures, one has to work on changing people’s attitudes. If I were given the power to do this one thing right away, I’d go for accessibility – make streets, offices, transportation, shops, cafes, schools, universities, entertainment centers, apartment buildings, all kinds of facilities and services accessible for people with disabilities. Not only will it release people from the confinement of their homes or institutions, but they will also become visible and the climate in society will gradually change. Others will eventually start viewing and treating people with disabilities as their neighbors, classmates, colleagues, just like other people in their community.”

A champion for the rights of parents with disabilities, Natalia Prisetskaya, recalled that when Russia  signed the Disability Rights Convention back in the autumn of 2008, she was in fact suing a local air-carrier for refusing to let her on a plane. Earlier that year, Natalia had gone through registration and security in one of Moscow’s airports and was ready to board when the airline’s representatives told her that passengers in wheelchairs could not travel unaccompanied. “They just said, ‘You’re disabled, you can’t fly!’ ” Prisetskaya recalled. “This was open discrimination.”

With support from Perspektiva she successfully fought the airline in court and secured extensive media coverage. Natalia thinks that the publicity they managed to raise for her case might have actually pushed Russia toward signing the convention that year. Signing was the first important step in the right direction but it took over four years for Russia to proceed with ratification of this international treaty, undertaking specific obligations to ensure equal rights for people with disabilities. It will also take Russia some time to introduce all the necessary changes to its laws and practices.

The Olympics in Sochi in 2014 will certainly be a major test, as Russia will host a large number of people with disabilities as guests of the winter games and then as guests and participants of the subsequent Paralympics. “The entire infrastructure needs to be prepared, but if there are some acts of discrimination, that will really hurt Russia’s image. Well and frankly, why should people have to endure so much degradation?” said Prisetskaya, the woman who proved to her country that she can fly big time, wheelchair or not.

It is now up to Russia – its government but also its citizens and advocacy groups like Perspektiva – to make sure that its millions of people with disabilities don’t have to fight legal battles to travel, study, work, go shopping, play sports, go out with friends– in other words, live a life just like anyone else.  

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