Page last updated at 15:15 GMT, Monday, 12 October 2009 16:15 UK

Russia's disabled suffer neglect and abuse

By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Moscow

Video of Vadim Voevodin being attacked
Vadim Voevodin was attacked outside his own home

The BBC has obtained shocking evidence of the abuse and prejudice which campaigners say is widespread against the estimated 13 million people with disabilities in Russia.

Many are like prisoners inside their own homes, unable to go outside because of the lack of basic facilities in the towns and cities, while tens of thousands of children with disabilities go without any education.

Vadim Voevodin, who has suffered more than most, is behind a campaign to improve life for those with disabilities in Russia, and as we sat inside his tiny Moscow apartment, he showed me a shocking video.

In the black and white CCTV footage a man kneels on the ground outside his apartment, under attack.

He tries to fight back but is pushed down and held in a neck-lock.

But this is no banal brawl between two angry able-bodied men.

The man on the ground is Mr Voevodin, and he is kneeling because he is paralysed from the waist down.

He has just been dragged from his wheelchair after answering a knock on the door from a local resident who came with the intention of beating him up.

Two years after this brutal attack Mr Voevodin still lives in fear, and the two small rooms which he calls home are packed with surveillance equipment.

Vadim Voevodin
The situation for people with disabilities here is now worse than in Soviet times, it's like an undeclared war against us
Vadim Voevodin

CCTV cameras and microphones protrude from every corner and a bank of monitors, video recorders and computers dominate an entire wall.

But the electronics are not only there because of his fears about security; the apartment is also the nerve-centre of his campaign.

And that is because he has no other choice of location.

He said he has not been able to go outside for the past 10 years because his front door is too narrow to get through in a wheelchair and, even if it was wider, he would not be able to get into the lift to go down to the ground-floor because it is too small.

And if he ever made it onto the city's streets he would face a maze of obstacles - steep kerbs , flights of steps, cars parked on pavements and a public transport system almost all of which is inaccessible for those with disabilities.

But even all this is not what troubles him the most.

'Undeclared war'

On his website he has posted a series of photographs of associates whom he said have died because of the acute prejudice within Russian society against those with disabilities.

"The situation for people with disabilities here is now worse than in Soviet times, it's like an undeclared war against us," he said.

"A wheelchair user I know, who was an active fighter for the rights of people with disabilities… was left to die in a hospital ward.

"There was another incident in Saratov. One of our members had a stroke and when they rang up the hospital they said they did not take invalids on Mondays. She died that day.

"In the last 10 years, 40 of my colleagues have died."

It is extremely difficult to verify these claims, but there was a swift denial from the authorities.

"The attitude in our health system is the same for everyone whether for people with disabilities or for people who are normally healthy," said Igor Gordeev of the social defence department of Moscow's city government.

"There is the Hippocratic Oath for doctors and they should follow it."

Students at Natalya's new school are no longer bothered about her deafness

Mr Gordeev also insists the Moscow authorities are now spending $300m (£190m) to improve facilities in the city for those with disabilities.

At a large school in central Moscow there are the first signs of a change in attitude within the general population.

The school is one of a handful involved in a project to include children with disabilities in the city's schools.

Most are still either educated in separate schools or at home - which according to the government's own figures means 170,000 children with disabilities in Russia do not receive any education at all.

Twelve-year-old Natalya, who was born deaf and has limited speech, has settled into her new school well.

She said: "I like it very much here.

"I am more keen to learn here than in my previous [separate] school. Here I only get excellent marks."


Some of the children in her class admitted they had never seen a person with disabilities before.

"I have changed my attitude to these people and I now think they are normal," said one pupil.

"I don't think they are different or that there is anything wrong with them."

A senior teacher said initially there had been resistance from some parents who said they did not want their children studying with people with disabilities.

But that resistance has now faded away.

It is a small beginning.

But the challenge of overcoming decades of neglect is formidable, and for now most of those with disabilities here remain isolated and vulnerable.

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