Patrick Segal first became concerned about the treatment of the disabled in the Soviet Union during preparations for the 1980 Olympic Games. ``The Olympic Games for the Disabled were to be held in Russia,'' Mr. Segal says, ``and the Russian authorities told all the international sports federations for the disabled that they could not handle [such] games in Russia because they had no handicapped people [there].''
Segal raised some questions, as did other groups for the disabled. But it wasn't until Yury Kiselyov - a well-known Russian artist who is disabled - sent Segal a booklet on conditions for the disabled in the USSR that Segal turned the issue into a personal mission.
Mr. Kiselyov had started the Initiative Group for the Defense of the Rights of Invalids in the USSR in the late '70s to collect and disseminate information on the conditions there, and to petition for government aid. Members were arrested; some were sent to labor camps.
In 1986, Segal took a cameraman to the Soviet Union, videotaped 12 hours of interviews with Kiselyov about treatment of the disabled, and smuggled the material out. The resulting film, ``Where Are You, Comrades?'' included footage by a Russian cameraman taken secretly at a work camp for the disabled. Segal says there are an estimated 100,000 disabled people in labor camps in the USSR. Some became disabled while in the camps.
Yuli Pessima, program coordinator at the Center for Democracy in the USSR in New York City, says an unofficial movement for the disabled has reemerged since Segal's visit. But pensions for the disabled are still very small, she says. And facilities such as wheelchair ramps don't exist.
``There are no elevators, and no special buses. So wheelchairs are useless,'' she says. The poor state of the Soviet economy lessens the chance for reforms, she adds.
Signs of progress do exist: Moscow may include wheelchair racing in its marathon this summer.