Disability in Russia: Social Stigma, Denialism and Disability Laws

Russian Federation aka Russia, the largest country in the world by area, is home to around 13 million disabled people. This number makes up 9% of the total population of the country. Let us see what rights and legal protections are given to these citizens of the Russian Federation. In this article, we will be trying to assess how it is to be a person with a disability in Russia.

Definition of Disability in Russia

Disabled people in Russia were termed as ‘invalid’ till 1995. The term invalid means someone who is sick or impaired.

The Federal Law about Social Protection of Disabled People in the Russian Federation, approved in late 1995, defines a ‘Disabled Person’. A disabled person according to the law is – “person who has the violation of health with a permanent disorder of functions of organs caused by diseases, consequences of injuries or defects, leading to restriction of activity and causing the necessity of its social protection”.

To acquire a ‘legal status’ of being ‘disabled’ in Russia, a medico-social expert evaluation set by the Federal Ministry of Health is mandatory. Once a person acquires the legal status of being disabled, she can get legal and medical benefits like financial support. Unfortunately, these people have very few rights regarding education, transport, access and opportunities to work etc.

Disability Laws in Russia

The Federal Law about Social Protection of Disabled People in the Russian Federation is the law governing matters related to disability and the rights of persons with disabilities in Russia. It puts the obligation on the federal government to provide social protection (like disability pension) to persons with disabilities.

The law states that discrimination against disabled people in political, social, economic, cultural, civil or any other sphere of life will not be admissible.

The law also obligates the government to establish principles based on international treaties regarding the social protection of people with disabilities in Russia.

It should be noted that the Russian Federation signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008 and ratified the same in 2012.

Social Status of Persons with Disabilities in Russia

Segregation of Persons with Disabilities to the extent that they are not visible in public space is a norm in Russia. The overall attitude towards disability is negative as disability is considered shameful. The culture dates back to the Soviet era. An anecdote regarding the culture of seeing disability as shameful is very popular. A western reporter who asked whether Russia will be participating in the first Paralympic games got a flat reply from the Soviet representative – There are no Invalids in the USSR.

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disability in Russia: A wheelchair icon on top of the Russian Federation flag

According to a Human Rights Watch report, nearly 30% of disabled children in Russia live in state orphanages despite the fact that at least 95% of them were not orphans. Doctors, nurses and state officials are the ones who suggest parents to give away children born with a disability to state orphanages. The suggestions are often forceful. Children in these orphanages live very miserable life. Children living in orphanages rarely get a chance to live independently as an adult. They are sent to adult institutions with almost no legal rights.

Not only children born with a disability but people who acquire a disability later in life have a tough time living in Russia. This includes soldiers who became disabled fighting for the nation.

Most of the places in Russia are not accessible for people with disabilities. Some instances have been reported where the public outraged against the building of ramps as they didn’t want their children to see a disabled person roaming around.

Though there are some non-governmental organizations working for the rights of people with disabilities, progress is very slow. Neither government nor the general population is supportive of the idea of giving equal rights to persons with disabilities in Russia.

Russia’s ‘Disability Denialism’ came to international view in late 2018 with the release of a movie titled Temporary Difficulties. The story of the movie revolves around a boy with cerebral palsy. While his mother accepted him as he was, his father wanted him to be normal. The father shows some ‘tough love’ to the child by forcefully snatching his wheelchair and leaving him alone in a forest, 100kms away from home. The boy was forced to crawl back home and this temporary difficulty ‘cured’ his cerebral palsy. The boy became ‘normal’, build a great business and married a very beautiful girl. And, thanked his father at the end for making him normal by pushing him into temporary difficulty. Although the movie got international criticism, it was viewed as ‘powerful’ and ‘motivating’ movie in Russia.

Russia needs to walk a long path not only to understand the rights of persons with disabilities but also to understand disability.

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