07 April 2010

There Are No Handicapped People in Russia

Or, so one would conclude by simple fact of observing the crowds in the streets and public facilities.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's combative president, visited the UN in September 2007.  On the occasion of his visit, he was invited to speak at Columbia University (and be mishandled by the host).  An audience member asked Ahmadinejad about the treatment of homosexuals in Iran.  Ahmadinejad said, "in Iran we do not have homosexuals like in your country."
Translated somewhat liberally, Ahmadinejad's comment could be interpreted as "in Iran we do not acknowledge the existence of homosexuals like in your country."  Be that as it may, and back to the topic of this blog, it is clear that Russia effectively does not acknowledge that it has handicapped people in its population.

Returning heroes of WWII forced the US to recon with the reality of handicapped people.  Considerable progress has been made in the past 50 years.  Public places are handicapped accessible now.  Moreover, many consumer products, like computers and operating systems, have provisions for people who may lack vision, auditory, or tactile capabilities.

Physical and mental handicapping are two separate phenomena, and a person's mind is ultimately more valuable than his body.  In some parts of the world, like in the Iran that I recall, physically handicapped people are ofter treated as though they were mentally deficient.  While I have not seen strong evidence for this, circumspect conversations suggest that this is somewhat true in Russia as well.  This is unfortunate both for the handicapped for the society at large.

Let's start with physical access:  In Russia - and in Europe to some degree - there are almost no accommodations for handicapped people.  This point was delivered home when I witnessed a wheelchair-bound person being carried down a flight of stairs at the metro station.  The builders of sidewalks, metro stations, trolleys, buildings, and so forth have all assumed that every person who wants to use their facilities has perfectly functioning limbs.

There is also a more insidious side to this story: Psychological effects.  The only time I have witnessed handicapped people in public is when they were begging - effectively praying on the pity of able-bodied people to make a living.  The implication is that handicapped people are lesser humans than the rest.

The physical and psychological barriers creates a substrata of society that is locked out of major economic activity.  Handicapped people cannot hold normal jobs due to societal attitudes and unforgiving infrastructure.  The trouble is that the rest of the Russian society cannot tap into the minds of the physically handicapped people.  This is a lose-lose situation for everyone involved.

A friend commented that only wealthy societies worry about the well-being of their physically handicapped members.  While there is some truth to his remarks, many wealthy societies in Europe effectively do not grant  full status to their handicapped citizens.  However, the observation misses a major point:  In order for a society to become wealthy, Russian, American, or otherwise, it is to everyone's benefit if every member of the society must have the means to contribute.

Russia will take a giant step forward once handicapped people start existing in the society.

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