Inside the small world of children living with Down syndrome in Russia

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Last November, photojournalist Pavel Volkov began a series titled “Other Children,” about Russian children born with Down syndrome. More specifically, the photographer wanted to capture the ways in which those children communicate and interact with the world around them.

“My goal was not to show sufferings and problems of  children with disabilities,” Volkov tells In Sight. “I understood while being there that these children don’t need compassion and mercy — they need good treatment. They need to be taught how to live in this rather cruel world, how to struggle and survive. There is no use of regret in this case. That’s why my main interest was communication of these children and external world.”

Down syndrome, a disability that often include slight physical growth delays, effects nearly 3,000 children born in Russia each year. Life expectancy of patients with Down syndrome is around 50 to 60 years in the developed world with proper health care. Often Russian parents abandon such children in maternity hospitals. Children who are rejected by their parents often become orphans, and later, after they become adults, they are transferred to specialized nursing homes. If no one adopts these children, they can spend their whole lives in the orphanages and specialized institutions.

Volkov visited several orphanages in Moscow, where he examined how a child with Down syndrome could flourish by learning things that may seem ordinary but are actually therapeutic, such as swimming, playing with dogs and riding horses.

“It’s overcoming some boundaries, together with coaches and teachers, doctors and even animals,” Volkov says. “Cognitive development of these children in different cases varies greatly. Nevertheless, children with disabilities are capable of doing most of what all other children can do. However, they need more careful treatment and attention. They need more time to learn the simplest things and skills.”

Volkov believes the best results are achieved by children who grow up in families and are surrounded by parents’ love and attention. Yet, “even those children who grow up in the orphanages or specialized schools now receive the necessary treatment,” he says. “These may be physiotherapy, which is necessary for the development of motor functions, massage, swimming in the pool, speech therapy and much more. The education of such children is based on special programs. Another positive form of therapy in Russia is hippotherapy, in which a therapist uses the movement of a horse to aid in developing balance and coordination, among other skills.”