20 years under Putin: a timeline

Thirteen million people with disabilities currently reside in Russia—this is around 10 percent of the country’s population. Yet the conditions for their integration and normal everyday life are still highly inadequate. IMR Advisor Boris Bruk assesses the problem and the possible solutions.



In January 2013, Human Rights Watch (HRW) presented a report that details human rights conditions in ninety countries. One of the HRW findings is that 2012 was the worst year for human rights in Russia. That said, the HRW did highlight a significantly positive point: this was the year Russia ratified the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Among the main goals of the convention is to “promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.”

According to Russian public officials, ratification of the convention did not offer any breakthroughs in terms of defining or adding rights for individuals with disabilities within the Russian legal system. A note issued by the State-Legal Directorate of the Russian president states that, “The Convention does not provide people with disabilities with any newly invented human rights … on the whole, it does not contain any conceptual provisions that are not in line with the Russian law.” For instance, among other things, the Russian Constitution proclaims that “Man, his rights and freedoms are the supreme value” (Article 2), while the Law on the Social Protection for People with Disabilities of 1995 is aimed at establishing a foundation for ensuring people with disabilities “opportunities equal to those of other citizens to realize their civil, economic, political and other rights and freedoms.”

Clearly, the fact that these rights are legally guaranteed does not mean that they are adequately observed. In particular, this is true when it comes to the right to accessible environments. As Andrea Mazzarino, the Europe and Central Asia disability rights researcher at HRW has argued:

When it comes to accessibility, Russian law is fairly progressive. It guarantees that infrastructure and information is accessible to people with disabilities. The problem is in enforcement. There’re no federally mandated enforcement mechanisms for Russia’s most comprehensive law in accessibility. The government’s failure to enforce its own accessibility laws means that millions of citizens with disabilities, with diverse talents, and contributions to make to society, can’t lead active social lives, or start families, or hold meaningful work.

Despite the ambitious plans, today, like decades ago, it remains difficult to speak of integrating people with disabilities into Russian society.

One important component to implementing the provisions of the convention is the Russian state program “Accessible Environment” for the period of 2011–2015, which has more than 46 billion rubles in scheduled funding. Among the program performance indicators is the percentage of accessible priority locations in the regions; this percentage is expected to increase from 16 percent in 2012 to 45 percent in 2015. The program has set specific goals, such as increasing the percentage of people with disabilities who express positive opinions about the accessibility of environments in Russia from 30 to 55 percent. Despite the measures undertaken thus far and the program’s ambitious plans, however, today, like decades ago, it remains difficult to speak of integrating people with disabilities into Russian society.

Many foreigners who came to the USSR were surprised to see almost no persons with disabilities out and about. The explanation was not that the Soviet Union had the best healthcare system in the world—one that magically cured all Soviet citizens—but rather that no barrier-free environment for people with disabilities had ever been created or was expected to be created. Moreover, according to some official statements, healthy people were not “used to seeing those with disabilities.” Because of this view, the isolation of people with disabilities was considered quite “normal.” Not surprisingly, in 1980, the leadership of the Soviet Union decided not to host the Paralympic Games, with one of the explanations being that there were “no people with disabilities in the USSR.”

According to official estimates, some 13 million people with disabilities currently reside in Russia. This number equals slightly less than 10 percent of Russia’s total population. For more than a few individuals representing this “statistically significant social group,” a barrier-free environment exists only in their dreams. In 2008, as part of a project called the System of Rehabilitation Services for People with Disabilities Residing in the Russian Federation, the first large-scale survey was conducted to identify problems associated with disability and rehabilitation. As the survey of over 3.5 thousand individuals showed, people with disabilities encounter substantial barriers on an almost daily basis. For example, around 60 percent of motor-impaired persons emphasized that they encountered problems with access to public transportation. Over 60 percent of persons with vision impairment had significant problems regarding the accessibility of sports and leisure, as well as rehabilitation facilities. From 59 to 83(!) percent of persons with disabilities (depending on the category of disability) argued that the level of government support was insufficient.



In September 2013, HRW presented a report dedicated to the topic of barrier-free access for people with disabilities in Russia. The report, entitled Barriers Everywhere: Lack of Accessibility for People with Disabilities in Russia, is based on findings from 123 interviews with people with disabilities and their relatives in six Russian cities, including Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Sochi. The report acknowledges that over the last few years, the Russian government has made advances toward creating more accessible environments in Russia. Despite these advances, however, people with disabilities continue to encounter significant (and sometimes impassable) barriers in everyday life.

The HRW report points out that in some cases, because of the lack of accessible environments, people with physical disabilities have to spend a substantial amount of time within four walls. The long-standing issue of people with disabilities residing in buildings with no elevators and ramps, as well as inaccessible apartments, has remained acute. Among other problems identified by HRW are the lack or absence of access to public/state organizations, commercial facilities, sidewalks, and crosswalks.

Access to transportation remains a big issue as well. In that regard, the most commonly mentioned barriers include an absence of adequately equipped stations and a significant shortage of accessible transportation (trains, subway cars, and buses). In the 2000s, handicap-lift-equipped buses began appearing in some Russian cities, but this number is still quite low. The situation is somewhat better when it comes to airport accessibility; according to some estimates, some 80 to 85 percent of airports are adequately accessible. This past summer a law was adopted to protect the rights of people with disabilities using air transportation.

The matter of creating accessible environments is particularly important given the context of the forthcoming Paralympic Games, which will be held on March 7–16, 2014, in Sochi. It is expected that 1,350 persons with disabilities will participate in the event. As Kommersant newspaper points out: “Today, Sochi offers architectural practice ground; it is a ‘pilot city,’ where it is being decided how the modern standards of barrier-free environment will be included in the life of Russian cities built in a different era.” It is planned that by the beginning of the Paralympics, 1,800 locations will be equipped for persons with disabilities and over 300 handicap-accessible buses (one-third of the entire Sochi Olympics bus fleet) will be in use.

Around 60 percent of motor-impaired persons emphasized that they encountered problems with access to public transportation.

Major efforts to create accessible environments in Sochi are aimed at sports facilities, lodging for Paralympic participants, and so forth. At the same time, many persons with disabilities residing in Sochi do not feel that any substantial change for the better has occurred. An example can be found in the same recent HRW report. The report tells the story of twenty-six-year old Sochi resident Maria D. Despite having limited ability, she resides in a regular, third-floor apartment. Her apartment is not wheelchair accessible. Her requests to move to another, accessible apartment on the first floor were denied by the local administration. Maria has to stay in her apartment for months at a time because the apartment building is not equipped with an accessible ramp and the elevator works only occasionally.

In the eyes of people with disabilities, the accessibility of environments in Sochi and other Russian cities leaves much to be desired. Moreover, in quite a number of cases, one can easily see that many components, which in their combination are seemingly expected to form an accessible environment for people with disabilities, were created with the intention of “checking a box,” while paying and doing as little as possible. For example, in many places, metal rails have been installed at unthinkably steep angles, making them impossible to use. As one individual who uses a wheelchair said, “The [metal] rails [installed over stairs] you see all over the place are completely useless. You’ll hurt yourself if you try to use them in a wheelchair.”  As one of the characters of Maxim Gorky says, “that thread is rotten.”

Of course, it is impossible to create an ideal barrier-free environment overnight. The questions that remain are how consistent the actions of the authorities will be, whether the all-inclusive enthusiasm will fade away when the high-profile, image-shaping events are over, and how effective the mechanisms for implementing the new laws will be.