One of the first things we noticed after arriving in Moscow was the poor quality of services for pedestrians. Sidewalks are bumpy with very high curbs, there are no elevators in the metro stations, and if you’re lucky enough to find a ramp, it’s extremely narrow, steep and slippery (we could barely roll our luggage up the one at the high-end Hilton Hotel). These are the kinds of obstacles that Yulia Simonova and other disabled people face everyday in Moscow and Russia in general.
Yulia is the Project Coordinator for the Regional Society of Disabled People – Perspektiva, an organization that works to improve the conditions and raise awareness about the rights of disabled people in Russia. The conditions for disabled people in Russia are terrible – not many handicap-accesible areas, hardly any programs for the blind and deaf, few schools that accept disabled kids, etc. The mentality among the Russian people focuses on the masses, not on the individual. There are so many people in the country (10 million in Moscow alone) that problems affecting even a few thousand people don’t matter. Disabled people are invisible and the government can’t be bothered with implementing services for such a small group in the scheme of things.
Yulia broke her back after a tragic gymnastics accident at the age of ten, and has been in a wheelchair ever since. She was forced to be home-schooled because the schools were not handicap-accessible at that time, and she began to lose hope in ever being able to lead a normal, happy life. She gradually met other people in wheelchairs and learned that they do in fact lead very diverse and active lives, changing her perspective on the possibilities for disabled people. After finishing school, she became a trained activist for people with disabilities through Perspektiva, and has been working for the organization ever since.
Yulia works on the development of inclusive education, traveling to schools and training students, parents and administrators about people with disabilities. She meets with many children, both with and without disabilities, talking to them about all of the activities that she does and showing them how disabled people can, in fact, lead normal lives. The impact of such education is obvious – she recalled how one boy, who was not disabled, came up to her afterwards and said that he now wants to be friends with disabled kids and help them. Many parents become involved in creating awareness as well. And though progress is slow, it is there – there are now 80 inclusive schools in Moscow, which accept disabled children.
Yulia’s story and Perspektiva’s mission are perfect examples of what creating awareness can accomplish. And that is the main goal of our project as well – to create awareness about individuals who are fighting for their beliefs, following their passions and making progress, one day at a time.