At the age of 10, Yulia Simonova broke her back while performing gymnastics. The accident marked the beginning of life in a wheelchair — and an end to any kind of social life for a young schoolgirl.
“I couldn’t go to school anymore because it wasn’t acceptable,” said Simonova, who is now 30 and lives in Moscow. “Teachers came to my place and explained to me the lesson, gave me homework, and it was kind of boring.”
Today, Simonova works with disability advocacy group, Perspektiva, to ensure that children with disabilities go to regular schools, instead of staying at home or being sent to a distant special school.
Over the past decade of work with Perspektiva, she's witnessed changes in her country to make it more accessible to those with disabilities, especially in the past five years as Russia geared up for the 2014 Sochi Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The International Paralympic Committee describes the Paralympics as not just a sporting event, but the opportunity to make the biggest impact on a host country’s attitude.
In Russia's case, there is no doubt it has come a long way since it last hosted the Olympic Games in 1980. Back then, the Soviet Union refused to hold the Paralympics on its soil, saying it didn't have any citizens with disabilities.
“To now be there 34 years later with a Paralympic Winter Games is testament to a changing Russia,” says Craig Spence, communications director for the International Paralympic Committee.
In fact, 78 Russian athletes will compete in the five sports at the Sochi Paralympics, which began Friday. That’s twice the number that attended the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
The $50-billion revamp of the Black Sea resort was aimed, in part, at making Sochi accessible to all. Organizers invested in ramps and made sure buildings were outfitted with elevators.
But Human Rights Watch (HRW) suggests the accessibility makeover applies solely to downtown Sochi. Those living outside the core remain unaffected, as do those in many small centres.
Yulia Simonova visits schools as part of her work with advocacy group Perspektiva to help them become inclusive to those with disabilities. (Courtesy of Yulia Simonova)
A report by HRW tells the story of a 26-year-old Sochi woman with cerebral palsy who lives outside the core and rarely leaves her apartment building because it lacks a ramp and a working elevator.
“When I met her, she was just sitting at home, and had been for four months,” said Andrea Mazzarino, the Human Rights Watch disability rights researcher who wrote the 200-page report.
It has been estimated that more than 13 million people — about a tenth of Russia’s population — live with disabilities.
The Human Rights Watch report acknowledges that Russia has taken steps to address the deeply-rooted discrimination lingering from the Soviet era.
The country's made strides, mostly in cities, to provide accessible public transport and buildings. But even though Russia instituted fairly progressive laws, they are not consistently enforced, the report says.
That leaves unchanged problems such as doorways that are too narrow and wheelchair ramps that are perilously steep, causing isolation for some.
Simonova has also witnessed these gaps in access.
When she leaves her home in Moscow, she can’t even cross the road without help. There’s no curb cut allowing her to wheel across the street. Nor can she use public transportation since only some of the buses are modified to allow wheelchairs aboard.
“It’s improving, but we still need to move forward a lot,” she says.
Since Russia won the right in 2007 to host the these Games, the country has been taking steps toward more inclusion.
In 2011, Russia started a four-year plan to invest in improved access for those with disabilities to education, health care, transportation and other public services. However, funds were doled out only to those regions that helped pay a portion of the cost.
The following year, Russia ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a treaty guaranteeing those with disabilities the same rights as others.
Last year, a new education law came into effect that gave children the right to study at mainstream schools.
At that time, about two-fifths of the approximately 450,000 school-age children with disabilities in Russia attended regular schools. Almost an equal number were deemed "uneducable," while more than one in 10 attended special needs schools far from home.
“Now teachers and parents and others, they understand what inclusive education means because five years ago, they didn’t even know… how to include children with disabilities," says Simonova.
Still, Human Rights Watch's Mazzarino believes more could have been done in the years leading up to the Sochi Games if the global community, including the International Paralympic Committee, put more pressure on Russia.
“The window of opportunity for pushing Russia in Sochi has passed because the Paralympics are upon us now,” said Mazzarino.
The International Paralympic Committee says it doesn’t take an activist role in making these kinds of changes, though it has a “property that has the ability to change the world” by breaking down stereotypes, said Spence.
Simonova agrees. The Paralympics "shows our society that people with disabilities are the same people and they can do sports activities, they can travel, they can have families and children,” she says.