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Belarus in Focus
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Belarus in Focus 2011

15 Nov

Vladimir Baranich, (Belarus)

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Invisible people

And the USSR used to be behind the Iron Curtain where people were cut off the civilized world and from many things so common to the Western world. Sure, I was impressed with incredibly huge JFK airport (no comparison with tiny but still empty Minsk airport), and the Empire State Building, and the World Trade Center Towers, and by the tourist tour to the FBI headquarters, and by the total absence of smokers in public places. Well, those things were impressive but not astounding. They were to be expected.

But what really caused me to wonder were people in wheelchairs everywhere – on streets, in malls, in museums, and of course at campuses of the Central Michigan University where I found myself as an exchange student. At first I’ve got impression that there are so many handicapped people in the US. And they move around, work, shop and have fun. Nothing like that I could ever imagine in USSR, where I’ve never seen wheelchaired person alone on the street. And those who were assisted had been few cases that could be counted on the fingers of one hand. They never ever had a chance in life, never. Why? It is apparent – all communist city environment, beginning from staircases in their living apartment houses and ending with ordinary streets with high road kerbs – all that is hostile toward such people. Therefore they had to stay at home – like in prison cells. And that’s why I’ve never seen them. Handicapped people have always been invisible to the rest of Soviet society.

Nothing has changed since that time. Come to Minsk and see. At the rare exception made for foreign donors or for the sake of getting governmental money, when some conveniences are made, Belarusian cities remain hostile toward wheelchaired people. Probably, situation turned even worse – due to growing number of cars taking every free space of city streets. You can see some photo examples below.

And that is only a visible part of many problems of the invisible people. More detailed information is available on the site of the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Let me quote Sergei Drozdovskiy, the coordinator of the Office: “Now we can see what the situation in our country and in our consciousness is with the problems of persons with disabilities and the realization of their rights. The society is not ready to accept disabled as equals, is not ready to see in them active and full members of public life”.

And at the same time according to the National public opinion poll (was held in Belarus in September 2011 by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies), half of the population (49.6%) is aware of the problems of disabled persons. And not only aware, but many have disabled persons in their families. As Sergei Drozdovskiy, wheelchaired himself, told me once, people with such disability fill up their ranks not due to accident or trauma, and not being born into that state. He himself broke a neck after jumping into a river in a familiar place which used to be safe for many years. But that year river brought too much sand. His story is the best illustration for what I like to say – we all are potentially handicapped, those who are not yet – are lucky enough or still waiting for being drafted to active duty.

It would be unfair to say that nothing is done in Belarus to help handicapped people. At least some do something or do a lot. There are many specialized organization helping people with disabilities. Among them is the abovementioned Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. These few people do much more than some big funds or governmental structures do. Although it would be unfair to say that governmental structures do nothing. Some do. All depends upon people. Because taxpayers’ money mostly goes for brutal police force (also used against disabled) or being squandered on monumental Soviet-era-like ice-hockey palaces. People working for miserable pay but doing a lot for kids. Could you guess how much does a teacher working full day with disabled children gets? 70 (se-ven-ty!) US dollars – not per hour, not per day – per month!

Recently I visited a unique public school (Inclusive Minsk School #25) where children with cerebral palsy study together with healthy kids. And there such teachers work. State built a building, state pays that miserable salary to those great teachers, but the rest is done by people – teachers, parents, volunteers. In fact, that school gave me some optimism. It is unique because it is brand new school in a new city area (“sleeping ghetto”) where disabled kids and healthy kids start from the very first grade and there are no bullies so common for regular schools, nobody mocking or mocking at those disabled kids. On the contrary, healthy kids help their less lucky classmates. And what was really astounding for me that kids, even with most severe forms of cerebral palsy, have the same curriculum as healthy pupils. Of course, computers etc. purchased by parents (state does not provide that) help. But this means breakthrough, at least a virtual one. There is too long road to a breakthrough when such children appear in their wheelchairs on streets, in shops, in offices.

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