ILYA ZASLAVSKY came to Washington at just the right time. Five months after his historic election to the new Soviet legislature as a champion of the weak, the young disabled Muscovite was able to see history being made on the other side of the Atlantic when the United States Senate voted to pass the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Mr. Zaslavsky, who walks with a cane due to a childhood illness, found himself in the Senate chambers on that day earlier this month when legislation was passed that parallels the 1964 Civil Rights Act in guaranteeing the rights of disabled persons.
In welcoming remarks, Sen. Robert Dole called him ``a man who carries an extraordinary message of hope'' to Soviet citizens and the world. Zaslavsky said he plans to use elements of the US bill as a model for similar Soviet legislation.
For this 29-year-old chemical and textile scientist-turned-politician, the battle to improve the lot of the Soviet Union's disabled population - officially put at 7 million, but believed to be much higher - has just begun. Only a few years ago the Soviet government barely acknowledged the existence of the handicapped.
To look around Moscow, it is easy to understand why they are out of sight. Few sidewalks have wheelchair slopes. Public transportation is inaccessible, as are most buildings. Disabled children are often put in special homes called ``internats,'' where conditions are generally poor. Zaslavsky says he was fortunate. His family had the means to pay for a taxi to take him daily to his institute. Later, he had a special car built that he could drive - a luxury many disabled cannot afford.
Speaking at the start of his 3 1/2-week US odyssey, which is sponsored by the National Organization on Disability (NOD), Zaslavsky described his first months in the Congress of People's Deputies.
Like many of the deputies supporting radical economic reform, he was not elected to the Supreme Soviet at the July session of the Congress. But he was made vice president of the Supreme Soviet's Committee on Veterans and the Disabled, and got a resolution passed protecting the right to a pension for disabled people who have jobs, no matter how high their salaries. ``That's very important,'' he says, ``because disabled people in the Soviet Union encounter rather serious economic difficulties in light of their condition - getting around, for example, transport.
``It's very important that, in addition to their earnings from their jobs, they have some other source of income, namely pensions.''
It is necessary, he adds, ``for a disabled person to have an incentive to integrate into working life, get a job, make his own money, and feel that he's on an equal status with nondisabled people.''
Aside from his legislative work, Zaslavsky has also joined his country's nascent philanthropic movement. Two months ago, he founded the Association of Charity and Culture, which links various ethnic, religious, and professional groups that do charitable deeds such as working in hospitals and providing psychological counseling for the disabled. In this context, ``culture'' refers to the need to develop traditions in the Soviet Union that would ``foster an attitude of charity,'' he says.
``That kind of tradition can only be built in a person from childhood,'' he explains. ``Disabled people should figure as characters in childhood literature, in comics, in books, so children can see that disabled people do not differ from anyone else.''
Zaslavsky becomes most animated when he places disabled issues in the broader landscape of economic reform and democratization - all of which he views as inseparable. Before the March elections, he was advised by consulting sociologists to stick to the issue he knows best - disabled rights - in order to mount the most effective campaign. Clearly, he succeeded. Andrei Sakharov dropped out of the race and supported him instead of a television commentator backed by the local Communist Party. Zaslavsky took 55 percent of the vote in the Oktyabrsky district (which also happens to be Mikhail Gorbachev's home base).
Now Zaslavsky is laying plans for his association to try its hand at economic management by leasing unprofitable government-owned enterprises and ``operating them in a more effective economic manner.'' He would bring in ``leading economists'' and industrial specialists who know something about cost-effective management. Some of the profits, he says, could be directed to charitable causes. He would also like to organize joint ventures with Western companies that could bring in modern technology.
For now, Zaslavsky says, ``we have the `residual-funding theory': Resources that are not directed toward the national economy and other areas such as military industry are directed to social needs.''
He hopes for the day when there is a separate sector of the economy devoted solely to social needs. Artificial limbs and wheelchairs, for example, are poorly made. ``We don't want just the leftovers,'' he says.
While in the US, Zaslavsky has been learning about disability programs in such far-flung locations as Greenville, S.C., and Bozeman, Mont., selected by the NOD for their successful integration of the disabled into community life. He has also spoken with officials of Goodwill Industries, which provides employment training and vocational services for disabled people.
And when Zaslavsky goes back to Moscow he will return with something more than just a nice memento from his stay. He will have a computer and software, given by the NOD, to help him coordinate his work.