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Getting around Moscow still an uphill battle for its disabled citizens

Like most of Russia, Moscow poses tough challenges for disabled people, from 14-lane highways to inaccessible subways. But charities and Russia's 2012 Paralympics success are driving change.

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Yulia Simonova makes her way from her car across the muddy parking lot of her office building in central Moscow. Ms. Simonovna, who broke her back during gymnastics class at age seven, is one of Russia's 13 million citizens with disabilities, for whom public access is slowly, if modestly, improving.

Ann Törnkvist

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Scriptwriter Zhenya Lyapin is discussing a scene with his director. Across the black stage, the actors wander about, dipping in and out of the pools of light.

"Our main problem is that the piece is very cinematic, we can't portray it like in a movie," Mr. Lyapin says calmly, clearly in command despite stress levels rising with two days left until the premier.

They decide to break for a nip of fresh air outside the small theater. The actors leap off the stage, stalking out through the main door.

Left behind is Lyapin, who grabs the wheels of his wheelchair and pivots towards the back of the stage. A warren of backstage corridors await the young man, as do thresholds of varying heights and a slog around the back of the venue's big stage, past stacked props and electric cords snaking along the floor.

Yet despite the veritable obstacle course, Lyapin's situation is better than that of most disabled people in Moscow. The Little Theatre at least has disabled access, he notes – he can even use the restrooms.

The rest of the Russian capital is a different matter entirely. Steep pavements, 14-lane avenues with precious few seconds between streams of heavy traffic, a subway system where Soviet murals far outnumber the stops with disabled access, all make Moscow difficult, if not impossible, to navigate for its disabled residents.

Slowly, however, things are improving. Paralympic success, a multimillion-dollar urban redesign, and even a ramp at Christ the Savior Cathedral spell modest but real progress for Russia's 13 million citizens with disabilities.

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Coming out in the open

"During Soviet times, people said there were no disabled Russians, and if you did meet someone with a disability people thought it was because their parents were alcoholics or drug addicts," Lyapin says.

If people with disabilities were said not to exist, it was because they were barely visible at the time. Yulia Simonovna was one of them. After breaking her back during gymnastics class at age seven, she was confined to her family's apartment on the fourth floor. She received home schooling, but only limited hours.

As a teenager, she ended up speaking out about her isolation on a television show. It caught the attention of another guest, Valery Shantsev, Moscow's then vice-mayor, who helped her move into a new apartment building with two elevators.

"It meant I could get out more and also start learning to drive," Ms. Simonova says.

More than a decade later, access to a car spells freedom for Simonova. It may take two hours to get to work in Moscow's murderous traffic, but the subway is simply not an option.

Modest improvements

Simonova works for a charity called Perspektiva, which focuses on disabled children's right to go to school. A decade ago, the capital only had one public school with inclusive education.  Today, 95 schools, or about 6 percent, welcome children with physical disabilities.

"Before, educators thought it was best if the children were educated in separate institutions or at home," says American-born Denise Roza, who founded Perspektiva. Her charity also provided funding for Lyapin's play, one of several written by students with disabilities and performed by professional actors.

She says things are improving, but by trial and error. The Christ the Savior Cathedral, site of Pussy Riot's controversial "punk prayer," now has a stair lift for wheelchairs. "In a lot of places you'll see a fantastic ramp, but once you're back on the pavement it's too high to get down to the street," Ms. Roza says with a dry laugh.

Russia's success at the Paralympics has helped draw its treatment of disabled citizens into the public eye as well. Russia made a strong showing at last summer's Paralympics in London, with its athletes taking home 36 gold medals, second only to China (the US came in sixth). And the country is set to host the 2014 winter edition of the Paralympics.

At the federal level, the state is investing nearly 30 million dollars per year in improved access and inclusive employment until 2014.

A long way to go

But there is still much to be done, as Simonova's work routine makes clear.

Once at work, despite the modern office building that backs on to a state-of-the-art hospital, Simonova faces an unpaved parking lot with her wheelchair. It turns into mud as soon as it rains.

"We've asked for them to put down tarmac, of course, several times," she says, making her way across the pebble-strewn pitch of land.

At the door, a security guard quickly comes to Simonova's aid. There is a ramp, but it is steep with no handrail. The guard puts his back into his task, but never once removes the lighted cigarette from between his lips.

And while Moscow does offer special parking spaces for disabled drivers – and even increased fivefold the fine for illegally parking in such spots – access to them remains limited thanks to that perennial Russian problem: corruption.

"If you have money you can buy a disabled parking permit – even if you're not disabled," Perspektiva employee Maria Gendeleva adds. "Corruption really is a big problem."

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