Since my approach to the "Where Are Moscow's Handicapped?" mystery was itself handicapped by its own inherent flaws, I put the question to the experts at Perspektiva, the disabled-rights NGO.
"There are two main barriers preventing the disabled from coming out. One is architectural, the other psychological," Yana Kovalyova, Perspektiva's director of an employment program for the disabled, told me. She even scoffed at my "positive" wheelchair experience, saying that it scratched only the first obstacle: poor urban planning.
The psychological barriers are more difficult to grasp yet run deep through Russia's Soviet past. The institutionalized discrimination against disabled people during Soviet times is one of those horror stories that's yet to be told, if only it could find an audience.
"Repression starts right at birth," Kovalyova said. "In Soviet times, when a child was born with any defect, no matter what sort of defect, doctors urged the mother to abandon the child to the state."
Thanks to this Soviet policy, children with minor physical abnormalities were pooled together with those with severe mental retardation problems. Both groups were consigned to the same fate: lifelong imprisonment in specialized orphanages for the disabled, called internats in Russian. The orphanages put little effort in education or even humane treatment. Isolated and removed from society from birth, disabled children entered a prison-like system from which few ever emerged. The society's attitudes towards the disabled were cultivated for decades, and much of it still carries over to today. According to stats collected by Perspektiva, about 200,000 disabled school children don't even have access to education.
By systematically isolating the disabled from the rest of society, the medical profession artificially created a subclass of uneducated and unsocialized citizens. The disabled didn't come into contact with the outside world, and the outside world didn't come into contact with them.
Evgeny's case is a telling example. He is a 27-year-old Muscovite with severe spinal deformities and stunted legs. Evegeny has spent his entire life bouncing around orphanages and care homes. The doctors still don't know whether his disability was congenital or the result of an early childhood trauma. Evgeny told me that his doctors believe that shortly after he was born, he was dropped—either by one of the hospital staff while he was still in the maternity ward or by his alcoholic mother when she brought him home from the hospital. In either case, when his mom brought him back to the hospital a week after his discharge, Evgeny was diagnosed as having irreparable spinal cord damage, and the doctors persuaded his mother to leave him in the care of the state. According to his aunt, whom he tracked down by bribing a hospital worker, Evgeny's mother tried to take him back a few days later, but the hospital told her he had died shortly after she dropped him off. The doctors even produced fake documents to prove it.
Unable to move, Evgeny spent the first 10 years of his life confined to a bed. The next five years, he underwent a series of operations on his spine, moving several times between orphanages and hospitals. He was only able to get out of bed and get around without the aid of someone else after doctors successfully implanted a bracket bridging the two broken segments of his spine. Evgeny now gets around by himself, but due to his stunted legs, he needs crutches.
Evgeny doesn't remember much of his first two decades of his life. But one thing is for sure, he got no schooling. You wouldn't know by his speech and vocabulary, but Evgeny is totally illiterate—he can't read or write. Instead of class, he remembers being forced to scrub toilets, which was also his orphanage's preferred form of therapy.