In Russia, people with disabilities used to be invisible. Yulia Simonova remembers it that way.
When she was 10, she was doing a gymnastics routine and had an accident. She fell and broke her back. After several surgeries, she ended up in a wheelchair, at home, isolated.
“I couldn’t go out from my house, and I lived on the fourth floor, without any elevator. I was stuck in my house,” she recalled.
That’s the way it used to be for disabled people in Russia. They couldn’t get out of their homes, they couldn’t go to work or to school, so they were effectively invisible.
But with support, Yulia got out of her fourth floor apartment. When she was 18, she spent a year as an exchange student in the U.S. She says that year changed the way she viewed things.
“In America, I even didn’t notice that I’m different, that I use a wheelchair. It was normal,” she said.
When she went back home, she began giving speeches at conferences about how things could be different for people with disabilities.
That was more than a decade ago. She says things are starting to change in Russia. You now see ramps for wheelchairs in Moscow and other cities, though she says they’re often too steep to use, and oblivious people park their cars in front of them.
But buses and subways are becoming wheelchair accessible, at least in the cities.
“In my opinion it should be faster, because I travel a lot and I see the situation in different countries," she said.
Yulia Simonova works on inclusive education for the Russian disability group Perspektiva. She says children with disabilities are increasingly going to school in regular classrooms. When she speaks at schools, she says kids ask her all kinds of questions.
“Children ask me how do you sleep in your wheelchair? Or how do you dress in your wheelchair,” she said.
They just assume she never gets out of it.
She doesn’t mind those questions. She says she thinks that young people in Russia are much more open to people with disabilities.
“Old people, they still have strong stereotypes. They feel pity for people with disabilities. But young people, they don’t,” she said.
There are other signs that Russia is changing. Last year it ratified the United Nations Convention on Persons with Disabilities, something even the U.S. hasn’t done.
Then there’s the Paralympics. Russia’s Paralympic team came in second in the overall medal count in the 2012 London Summer Games. Simonova says it gave Russians a sense of pride.
Next year, Russia hosts the Winter Games in Sochi, and Simonova says she’s applied to carry the torch for the Paralympics.
“I hope people choose me and I will do it,” she said. “I want to show our society, other people that people with disabilities are independent, educated and beautiful.”