Russia Looks for Ways to End Isolation, Invisibility of Disabled

Vera Samykina, 17, who has cerebral palsy, is schooled at home. Getting out, she says, is
Vera Samykina, 17, who has cerebral palsy, is schooled at home. Getting out, she says, is "very difficult." (By Peter Finn -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 26, 2008

MOSCOW -- Vera Samykina is an A student in all subjects who just completed ninth grade, a significant marker in Russian education when some students bow out to pursue a trade or a technical education. But Samykina, 17, is determined to finish high school in two years and then pursue a university degree in English.

She has never been inside a regular classroom, however. Most of her education occurs in her cramped Moscow apartment. Samykina has cerebral palsy, and until she was 15, tutors came to her house three times a week for a couple of hours to instruct her in her various subjects. For the past two years, she has been taught over the Internet by specialists in each subject.

"There is no other way," Samykina said. "I would like to get out more often, but it's very difficult."

People with disabilities are literally almost invisible in Russia, isolated in homes, special schools and sheltered workshops. It is a rare event to see a person in a wheelchair or a blind person or someone with Down syndrome out and about on the streets of a Russian city.

Halfhearted attempts to encourage the employment of the disabled by setting quotas for businesses have faltered. Most employers preferred to pay the low fines for failing to meet quotas rather than actually hire disabled people, according to advocates for people with disabilities.

Long after Western countries began concerted efforts to mainstream the disabled in both education and employment, Russia is only beginning to seriously explore the task.

"This is an issue we did not talk about at all for a long time," President Dmitry Medvedev said last month at a meeting with government ministers and advocates for the disabled. "We have the . . . task of providing disabled people with comfortable living conditions and creating a developed rehabilitation system so that they can take a full part in life."

But to date, even getting a ramp built can often prove impossible.

Samykina, for instance, lives in a first-floor apartment up three short flights of stairs. All her mother's attempts to get the local authorities to build a ramp have failed. "They said they don't have the technical expertise," said Tatyana Samykina, who drags her daughter's wheelchair up and down the stone steps when they go out.

Outside their home, only some of the buses that serve the neighborhood are wheelchair-accessible. The city's subway system is off-limits, as are any number of theaters and museums that the mother would like to take her daughter to.

The local schools, like almost all Russian schools, are completely out of reach.

"There are norms for accessibility of schools for children," said Alexander Lomakin-Rumyantsev, head of the All-Russia Society of People With Disabilities and a member of parliament, noting that all new schools and schools undergoing reconstruction work are supposed to be made accessible. "But they're not doing it."

The result, he said, is that only a "tiny percentage" of children with disabilities attend their neighborhood schools.

According to government officials and advocacy groups, about 50,000 disabled children study at home and an additional 70,000 are in special day and boarding schools. But according to Oleg Smolin, a member of parliament on the Committee for Science and Education, 200,000 disabled children in Russia receive no education at all.

"Some of these children are in boarding schools where they get care but no education," said Smolin, who is blind. "And some of these children are simply at home."

Medvedev urged officials last month to explore the possibility of connecting the homes of all disabled Russian children to the Internet. That would follow the lead of a few Russian cities such as Moscow, which donates all the equipment that students such as Samykina use. The city also funds a school, called the i-school, where teachers use the Internet to work individually with disabled children across the city.

"I think distance learning is vital because no other infrastructure in Russia is developed," Samykina said. "It at least allows a person to get a good education and eventually study at the university level." Samykina also said her i-school teachers have high expectations for her, unlike her old in-house tutors, who seemed content when she completed the most basic of tasks.

The distance-learning approach is being greeted cautiously by advocates for the disabled.

"Some of the discussion of distance learning is that it's the solution for everything," said Denise Roza, director of Perspektiva, a nongovernmental organization that champions the full integration of the disabled. "That's not getting people into the community. It's just high-cost exclusion."

And Lomakin-Rumyantsev, who has used a wheelchair since an accident in 1980, cautioned Medvedev that distance learning is a stopgap measure.

"Distance learning is a good thing today when schools are not ready to take disabled children," he told Medvedev in a recent meeting. "But you said quite rightly that people should be able to take a full part in life. And this means that children should be able to grow up and go to school together with their peers."

Lomakin-Rumyantsev said in an interview that he would like to see investment in the refurbishment of school facilities, the retraining of teachers, and the education of parents, both of the disabled and abled, to prepare the system.

"This has to be done carefully because we don't want to discredit the idea of integration by trying to get everyone into the general school system immediately," he said. "The school system is not ready. But it's important not just for the disabled but for all of society that we begin to change."

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