Disabled Russians gain mobility, visibility

Advocates say slowly shifting attitudes got a boost last month, with a pledge from President Putin.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

At the Seyaz auto plant, assembly lines are busy, churning out tiny Oka cars and fueling new hope for thousands of disabled Russians.

The cars, about half the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, look like cubes on wheels. Custom-designed for handicapped drivers, with special gears, pedals, and steering devices, each vehicle has been paid for in advance by the Russian government.

"We are a kind of barometer of official concern for the disabled, and it has never looked stronger than it does now," says Gennady Bykov, a manager at the plant, where orders are backlogged. "We feel confident enough to be making big expansion plans."

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The plant, 50 miles south of Moscow, was established in 1950 to build cars for disabled World War II veterans. Its production never exceeded 10,000 units annually. Following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, it almost stopped completely. This year, 19,000 of the special Okas drove out the factory gates; next year, Mr. Bykov says they will make at least 20,000. The total demand may be as high as 100,000 per year, he adds.

For Russia's 11 million disabled people, the little cars are a symbol of the social integration pledged by the Kremlin for more than half a century but only partially delivered. In communist times, most people with severe disabilities were kept at home or in institutions - war veterans were an exception - from which they seldom emerged. Post-Soviet and social-service cutbacks forced tens of thousands of them onto the streets of Russian cities, where many still subsist as beggars.

"Disabled people have been treated like outcasts, and they respond by withdrawing into themselves," says Yevgeny Lilyin, a specialist with the Russian Health Ministry. "It's very hard for a person to adapt to a society that rejects them."

The average Russian city street remains an obstacle course for even the mildly disabled. Few public facilities are wheelchair accessible. Disability pensions tend to be lower than average, making no allowance for special needs.

"Russia is a very poor country, and we understand that it's not possible to remake all the infrastructure overnight," says Alexander Klepikov, vice chair of the 2.5 million-member Russian Society of Disabled People. "But we are very encouraged by changes of attitude we see taking place. This is the most crucial thing."

Until recently, no Kremlin leader had ever spoken out about the problems of disabled people. In 1980, the Soviet Union even refused to participate in the Paralympic Games because officially, no one in the country was disabled.

But President Vladimir Putin was personally embarrassed last month when several disabled groups' representatives, invited to attend a government-sponsored assembly of public organizations, were nearly turned away because their wheelchairs wouldn't fit through turnstiles at the Kremlin gates. "Shame on us," Mr. Putin told the meeting. "The policies of the past made it impossible to integrate the disabled into society, even in the smallest ways. We need to make a complete overhaul of our attitudes and approaches."

At the Kremlin meeting, Putin pledged to consult regularly with disabled groups, and promised large increases in pensions and other funding for new programs to facilitate adaptation. "We know this is not just talk, because we have seen the changes already," Mr. Klepikov says. "It makes such a difference to see the president publicly acknowledge our struggle."

The tasks are daunting. Hundreds of factories originally built to provide work for Soviet war veterans - many still operated by Klepikov's organization - are technically bankrupt. Millions more disabled live in extreme poverty or endure isolation and neglect at the hands of ill-funded, Soviet-era state institutions.

"When you look at the overall challenge, it isn't easy to be optimistic," says Mr. Lilyin. "But there are many rays of light, and they are growing brighter all the time."

Perhaps the best sign of change is the proliferation of grass-roots groups pressing for disabled peoples' rights. "There are five really large ones, and hundreds of small ones," says Klepikov. "That's why political power has started to listen, and it's also why attitudes in the streets are changing." A few years ago, a person in a wheelchair would attract a crowd of curious onlookers, he says. "Now it's almost a normal thing."

Last summer in Serpukhov, the Seyaz plant sponsored Russia's first-ever disabled car rally. Dozens of special vehicles competed in a 900-mile race from Moscow to Volgograd.

"It was a lot of fun, and it was very well received by everyone along the route," says Valery Svistunov, the factory's deputy director. "It was great publicity for a very good cause, and for our products too. We're going to make it an annual event."

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