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(Moscow) – Millions of people with disabilities in Russiacontinue to face significant barriers to participation in society. In 177 days, Russia will host the March 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi.

The 118-page report, “Barriers Everywhere: Lack of Accessibility for People with Disabilities in Russia,”is based on 123 interviews with people with disabilities and their families in 6 cities across Russia. It documents the everyday hurdles people with disabilities meet when going to government offices, shops, healthcare centers, and places of employment, and accessing public transportation.

According to official statistics, at least 13 million people with disabilities live in Russia, or approximately 9 percent of the population.

“The Russian government has taken some high profile steps to improve accessibility, but when it comes to daily life – such as going to work or visiting the doctor – people with disabilities face an uphill battle,” said Andrea Mazzarino, Europe and Central Asia disability rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Should the government fail to act, millions with disabilities will remain cut off from society.”

In 2012, Russia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The convention obligates the government to ensure that the physical environment and services open or provided to the public are accessible to people with disabilities on an equal basis with others. It also must ensure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities for employment.

Human Rights Watch interviewed people with different types of disabilities or multiple disabilities in the cities of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ulan-Ude, and Sochi and in smaller towns in the Moscow and Leningrad regions. In the interviews, men, women, and children described a range of barriers they experience. For example, those living with physical disabilities in Russia who use wheelchairs or crutches may be confined to their homes or severely limited in their ability to engage in daily life either because elevators are broken or nonexistent, or because ramps leading to public and private buildings, street crossings, or transportation stations are too steep, too narrow, or are absent altogether.

People who are blind or have low vision struggle with the lack of tactile and reflective markers on sidewalks, on public transportation, and elsewhere. A blind man who commutes from the Moscow suburbs to the city center to go to work told Human Rights Watch that he has fallen three times from commuter train platforms because he could not find the edges. He broke his hand on one of his falls.

Many with disabilities also receive substandard healthcare because of a lack of specialists in their communities, physically inaccessible exam equipment, and health workers’ unwillingness to speak directly with them.

Russian citizens with different kinds of disabilities, including intellectual or psychosocial disabilities, face obstacles getting jobs due to employer discrimination and lack of adequate educational opportunities. For example, in Moscow, 28-year-old Yuliana who has low vision reported that potential employers rejected her application for the position of a school psychologist in 2009, asking, “You see badly. How are you going to work with children?” Russian government statistics suggest that only 20 percent of people with disabilities, as defined by the government, are employed. This is roughly on par with some European countries.

Some people with disabilities reported facing multiple obstacles. According to one disability rights activist in Moscow, who uses a wheelchair, “Accessibility is a chain. If one link doesn’t work, then the whole thing doesn’t work.”

“Russian law is actually quite strong in terms of guarantees for people with disabilities to accessible housing, transportation, rehabilitation, and information, among other things,” Mazzarino said. “However, the reality does not reflect the law. Russian authorities are not enforcing accessibility laws and fail to respond when citizens with disabilities tell them there is a problem.”

From March 7-16, Russia will host the 2014 Paralympic Games in the Black Sea city of Sochi, following the Winter Olympic Games in February. More than 1,300 athletes with disabilities will participate in five Paralympic sports: alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, ice sledge hockey, and wheelchair curling.

When hosting the Summer Olympics in 1980, the Soviet Union refused to host a Paralympics, claiming at the time, “There are no disabled people in the USSR.”

As host to the games, Russia committed to ensuring accessible Olympic housing, sports venues, and other facilities and to increasing accessibility in the city of Sochi. The government has announced the creation of over 100 accessible buses; the adaptation of hundreds of buildings to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities; and accessible signs at bus stops for people with sensory disabilities. The Paralympic Games are also expected to leave a lasting legacy for the host city and country.

Despite these efforts, Human Rights Watch found that Sochi residents typically experience the same obstacles to inclusion as do residents in other cities: people with disabilities are confined to their homes; cars are parked illegally in spaces designated for people with disabilities; transportation and public spaces are often inaccessible; and discrimination against people with disabilities persists.

In Sochi, “Maria” (not her real name), a 26-year-old woman who uses a wheelchair, spends months confined to her third-floor municipal apartment because her building lacks an accessible ramp and functioning elevator. She crawls from room to room because the corridors in her apartment are too narrow for her wheelchair. Since 2000, Maria has written to the local administration officials requesting an accessible apartment as mandated by her state medical documents. The authorities responded that no such housing is available.

“In hosting the Paralympics, Russia is helping to showcase the potential and accomplishments of athletes with disabilities from around the world,” Mazzarino said. “It’s crucial that the government also ensure the basic rights of its own citizens with disabilities, who are much less visible, and who are in fact often excluded from the most basic participation in society.”

As part of its implementation of the CRPD, the government initiated a multibillion-ruble Accessible Environment Program (2011-2015) to give technical and financial resources to several regions to make services and infrastructure more accessible. The program is an important step toward ensuring accessibility, but it has significant limitations. It neglects to explicitly address the needs of people with intellectual or mental disabilities. In addition, the program supports only those regions that can devote their own funds to accessibility.

Human Rights Watch urged the Russian government to consistently enforce federal accessibility laws, including by training local officials to respond in a timely and effective manner to citizens’ accessibility complaints. It also urged Russia to combat discrimination through legislative changes and by seeking to change negative public attitudes about people with disabilities, including via strong public statements at the highest government levels.

“An accessible environment cannot be achieved overnight,” Mazzarino said. “But the government can and should make sure that its laws have teeth, and address complaints in a timely and effective manner.”

Selected testimonies:

“The ramp leading into my apartment building is too steep, so I can’t leave. My daughter’s teachers and the other parents think she is an orphan, because I can’t be there for her.”

–Woman with a physical disability in Ulan-Ude

“Emergencies are a big problem. You have to rely on your relatives. If something happens, who is going to call the emergency services? You can’t text them. I went to them [the city administration] and told them that they needed to have text messaging. That was a year ago. Nothing has happened.”

–Disability rights activist with a hearing impairment in Ulan-Ude

“You rely on memory to know where to enter and get off a minibus [marshrutka] because there are no announcements of stops. So when minibuses stop in the wrong places, you get lost.”

–A man with low vision in Moscow

“There are no government organizations that help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to prepare for and find employment.”

–Disability rights activist in Moscow

“The problem with this law is that there are no mechanisms for it to be enforced.”

–Disability rights activist in Moscow, commenting on Russia’s federal accessibility law

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