Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 7 March-April 2001

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How Disabled Activists got in People's Way (and made them stop and think)

By Valery Paniushkin
Kommersant Daily, October 21, 2000

Yesterday, as part of the "Accessible City" initiative, disabled activists got in people's way at the Yugo-Zapadnaya metro station. Or at least that's what a police officer told our special correspondent Valery Paniushkin: "Those disabled people were bothering everyone." All this week, the non-profit organization "Perspektiva" hosted a seminar in Moscow's Salut Hotel. Young disabled people from Moscow, Tver, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara and Toliatti gathered together to learn, in the words of Perspektiva director Denise Roza, "new ways to fight for their rights."

These kinds of seminars, which Perspektiva hosts regularly, are similar to the training programs that McDonald's managers organize for their new employees, complete with contests, slide shows and diagrams. It is very clear that these enthusiastic young people did not just come to Moscow for a good time. They are learning things - like how to inform a Governor that the lack of ramps in his region is a violation of the Russian Constitution.

"According to the Constitution, I have a right to an education," explains an attractive young woman in a wheelchair. "But without a ramp, I can't get into the university. The physical barriers are a violation of my constitutional rights."

The most recent Perspektiva seminar was honored by the presence of Alexander Lysenko, a high-ranking employee of the Ministry of Labor and Social Development. He gave out his telephone number and invited the participants to call him for any reason, congratulated them on attending the seminar and in general tried very hard to say as many good things as possible about rehabilitation programs for disabled people: "Our new rehabilitation program, the experience of the rehabilitation program in Samara, British rehabilitation centers."

During the speech, Perspektiva director Denise Roza, a slender woman with large, bright eyes, stood off to the side and whispered to me: "Actually, We try to avoid the word "rehabilitation" because it often implies "repairing" a person with a disability, or getting rid of their impairment. That is insulting for someone with a disability, and that is not what our organization is promoting. In reality we need to talk about inclusion. Society must accept disabled people for who they are and provide them with equal opportunities."

It turns out that society is not quite ready for that. Society is quite firm in its determination not to integrate disabled people. Or at least it seemed that way on Friday, when thirty some wheelchair users left the Salut Hotel in southwest Moscow and headed for the nearest metro station.

"What if they arrest us?" some worried.

"What could they arrest us for?" asked Allen Holdsworth, a disabled British human rights activists who had come to Moscow for the seminar. "We're just going to the metro. Is that illegal?"

"There are a lot of us," the others explained to him. "They could very easily arrest us all, if only to hold us until evening."

Have you ever seen thirty people go down a staircase in wheelchairs? Have you ever heard a plump wheelchair-user[s] say that she'll never make it back up those stairs, and then seen her go down all the same to show that it is unjust that the city is built only for those who can descend "on foot"?

Seeing the thirty wheelchairs coming down the stairs, the station manager began to scream at the flood of people heading towards the exit. "Citizens! Use the other exit; there are disabled people here!" As if they had the plague.

A police officer walked up and politely asked them to leave the station. "You see it's rush hour now, and you are getting in people's way."

One of the youth activists responded, "Excuse me, sergeant, what about us, aren't we people, too?

A young man holding a bouquet of flowers watched the wheelchairs bouncing along the stairs and said, "Man! I never thought about how these people got into the metro."

Allan Holdsworth smiled, waved and called out in English, "We will come here every day until they build ramps! Brothers, let's storm this train!"

Introduction| Article 1| Article 2| Article 3 | Article 4

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