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

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Overcoming Barriers
We are all equal, but it's more difficult for some

Kommersant Daily, December 8, 2000

Yesterday, a group of young disabled activists from the Perspektiva organization gathered on Pushkin Square in the Center of Moscow. Their goal was to make the city authorities realize that getting around Moscow is nearly impossible for someone in a wheelchair. The activists invited anyone who was willing to sit in a wheelchair and try to cross the park in front of McDonald's. Kommersant's special correspondant Valery Paniushkin tried and failed.

There were four Santa Clauses on Pushkin Square yesterday. One of them was had a vision impairment and wore glasses with thick lenses. Two others with cerebral palsy swayed lightly as they walked and wished the passers-by a happy New Year. It is, after all, almost New Year's, and the young activists had no desire to spoil the holiday mood. All that they want is the freedom to move about the city. The fourth Santa Claus was in a wheelchair. It took him half the day just to make it to the demonstration, and would take him another half day to get home. A whole day traveling just to hang out on Pushkin Square for an hour or so.

People hurried past. Older people gave the demonstrators strange looks, then turned away, muttering, "Them again? Just the other day they protested in Nizhny Novgorod for ramps. Will they ever give up?"

The protesters would answer that they have not only a right but a responsibility to protest until the mayors of every city in Russia build ramps and adapt public transportation for wheelchair users. United Nations conventions are behind them on this, but for some reason many people seem not to agree.

The younger pedestrians were much friendlier and more willing to participate. They happily took pamphlets on equal rights from the disabled Santa Clauses. I saw some pretty young women approached by a Snowmaiden - in Russia she traditionally accompanies Santa Claus -- who was the size of Thumbalina. They did not turn away from her, but instead bent down, talked with her, and took pins that said "We are equal."

How did these young, carefree girls know that the proper etiquitte for conversing with a disabled person in a wheelchair is not to tower over them but to bend down to meet them at eye level? Did they learn it in school? Or do ideas of equality come from America with hamburgers and soft drinks? I am confident that when this generation takes its place in local and national governments, they will build ramps and make public transportation accessible. But it will be another 20 or 30 years before this generation makes it to positions of power. So these young disabled people cannot get an education because they cannot make it to the university, they cannot get jobs because you can't be late to your job every day, and they cannot have families because you have to work to feed your children.

This is what the activists from Perspektiva were yelling into megaphones on Pushkin Square. It comes from the mouths of a million disabled Muscovites. Yes, there are a million disabled people in Moscow. And the petition which people were signing was on behalf of all of them. The demonstraters went to the offices of the mayor in order to give the petition to Mr. Luzhkov. To get to the mayor's office means crossing five streets. That is ten curbs, not one of which a wheelchair user can get over without assistance.

In the park in front of McDonalds stood two empty wheelchairs for anyone who wanted to see what it is like to go down stairs in a wheelchair. I was talking to Perspektiva's director, an American named Denise Roza. I told her that I wanted to try.

"You really want to?" she asked happily. "I'll find you an instructor and a helper."

As soon as I sat in the wheelchair, one of the other journalists said that it was a bad omen. That a non-disabled person should not walk on crutches because he will break his leg, and that if he sits in a wheelchair, he will become disabled.

"But a non-disabled person can look on?" I answered. "And not do anything to help?"

I sat down. A smiling man named Valera explained to me that in order to avoid falling, wheelchair users go down stairs backwards.

"Why can't I move?" I cried.

"Try releasing the brakes."

I released the break which made it a little easier to move, but not much. I moved, facing backwards, towards the steps. Two people supported me from behind. It was terrifying. I just barely touched the wheel, and suddenly the wheelchair was falling sideways. Luckily they caught me. I have no idea how disabled people do this by themselves.

Valera told me that it is somewhat easier to go down the stairs in a "sports wheelchair," but that such wheelchairs have a fairly complicated design. An inexperienced user is in danger of tipping the chair over on flat ground.

And I still had to get back up the stairs. Two guys helped push. I spun the wheels with all my strength and made it up one step. I was completely weakened and discouraged. Me! A strong young man, and an athlete! Hundereds of people were passing by along Tverskaya street, and it would have taken five of them to lift my 90 kilograms up the stairs.

Just try sitting in a wheelchair yourself! Or try closing your eyes in the Metro and not ending up underneath a train. Try making the transfer at Kievskaya metro station if you are blind. Have you ever thought about the fact that there are over 50 steps there?

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

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