"In the USSR, there are no invalids."
This was the official reason that the Soviet authorities gave for declining an invitation to hold the 1980 Paralympics in Moscow. If you’ve spent any time in Russia, you might think they were telling the truth. Other than a few token amputee Afghan vets begging in the metro or haunting traffic during rush hour, disabled people are simply not part of the Moscow landscape. After three years in Russia, I can count the number of wheelchair-bound people I’ve seen on one hand.
Obviously, just because they’re not out in public doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. If anything, it points to how bad the handicapped have it. There are approximately 13 million people living with serious disabilities in Russia, according to Perspektiva, an NGO that fights for disabled rights. Out of a population of 140 million, about 10% of Russians are considered handicapped.
So why are Russia’s handicapped so conspicuously inconspicuous? Are their lives so traumatizing that 10% of the population would voluntarily place itself under house arrest rather than face Russian society?
There are many ways to tackle an issue as painful and disturbing as this, so I chose the most painful, yet lightning-quick angle possible: get my own Russian wheelchair, go native, and do the Disabled Like Me story. My plan was try to spend a day doing a range of typical 20-something Russian activities—ride the metro, go to the IKEA mall, eat at a shitty sushi chain, go clubbing—all in a wheelchair. The rules were simple: no leg movement the entire time. Among other things, this would bring into focus all the basic problems that a wheelchair-bound disabled person would face. Would I be able to wheel myself around alone? How would I use the metro? How about a bus? Would the goons who guard every store and restaurant even let me through the door?
By law, it shouldn’t be so horrible. In 2001, President Putin signed a law mandating equal access for the handicapped on public transportation, in government-owned buildings, and all newly-constructed buildings or those that have undergone major reconstruction. However, the reality is that since the laws have no fines built into them, there has been very little compliance. In fact, even many Russian hospitals aren’t handicap accessible.
After spending a full day wheeling around in my wheelchair, what I learned wasn’t at all what I expected, in ways that are both more life-affirming and suicide-affirming. On first impression, Moscow, especially its people, was much more welcoming to the handicapped than I had expected, or experienced back home. But as I dug deeper into the everyday reality that invalids face, I found out how brutal a life it really was.
A CHAIR CALLED "HOPE"
My first order of business was getting a wheelchair, which I rented from a store called Invalid Technologies located near the MKAD. For 250 rubles per week, I was able to rent a Russian-made wheelchair manufactured in Ufa. My wheelchair was a "Nadezhda" brand, which means "Hope" in Russian. A wheelchair named Hope. It’s the kind of over-the-top black humor you’d expect in an old Zucker brothers comedy, especially when you consider that almost every part of the chair is constructed in the shittiest way imaginable. The only thing manufactured decently is the giant "Nadezhda" brand tag.
According to the guy at the store, despite its good looks, the Nadezhda wasn’t really an improvement on the chrome Soviet-era wheelchairs that are still given out to the disabled by the Russian government for free. It had faulty breaks that would lock up without warning, and the wheelchair wouldn't stay in its collapsed position no matter how hard I and my "nurses" tried. Moreover, the damn thing weighed 50 pounds—more than a third of my body weight—making it useful for mafia thugs looking to sink a body. For me, the Nadezhda was about as difficult to steer as an APC. The chair’s only innovation was the deluxe bright blue paint job and removable leg braces, which supposedly made it highly transportable. Transportable on what, is the big question—a C-130 Hercules? As I found out minutes after leaving the store, my Nadezhda didn’t fit into the trunk of any standard four-door Lada produced in the past three decades, and it barely even fit into a Lada’s entire back seat.