No Wheelchairs Allowed

tol chalkboard logoAlexander Mokin had his birthday party all planned out. He booked a table for four at Galereya, a popular restaurant and club in downtown Yekaterinburg. He’d chosen to celebrate turning 27 years old quietly, with just his wife and two friends. The restaurant manager was courteous on the phone, and the arrangements were in place. Until the group arrived at the venue.

When they turned up the management refused entry to Alexander. He failed even to get past security, or “face control.” That kind of thing happens every day in clubs when known troublemakers are turned away. But there was no such reason for Galereya to exclude Mokin.

The club’s duty manager, a pleasant-looking woman, explained the situation in uncompromising and insulting terms.

“You’re an invalid. You look ill and you would scare our customers away,” Mokin said she told him. “It’s up to me to decide who to let in, and I don’t see you fitting in here. Your appearance would only make the other guests uncomfortable.”

Mokin has used a wheelchair since his lower body was left paralyzed by an accident two years ago. On a hot summer day, he plunged into a lake to cool down. But the water was too shallow and he hit the bottom, severing his spinal cord.

Mokin said he was especially taken aback by the ugliness at Galereya because he had made it clear on the phone that he uses a wheelchair. Another manager had even offered him a table he said would be suitable for wheelchair users.

“It’s not the first time that I’ve been turned away from cafés for the same reason,” Mokin said. He says staff at such venues have often told him openly that his wheelchair would scare other clients away.

It seems to be a common attitude in Russia that people who are obviously sick or handicapped should be banned from places that others visit for fun, and that sitting next to a disabled person is enough to ruin one’s appetite. So much for acceptance, cordiality, and good manners.

Russia’s disabled people are often too poor to go out, and not all who need a wheelchair even have one. At the same time many of those who do have wheelchairs have to stay at home much of the time because no carer is available to accompany them on excursions.

“On only one occasion have I received apologies from the director of a café where a security guard had not let me in. They even offered me a frequent visitor card, but after such humiliation I couldn’t accept it,” Mokin recalls.

The management of Galereya eventually issued a written apology to Mokin, but only after a group of about 20 disabled people in wheelchairs held a protest outside the venue. To the staff who turned Mokin away, that must have qualified as an unpleasant sight for the club’s guests.

Yekaterinburg’s ombudsman has urged Mokin to sue the club. A high-profile court ruling might help to change some of the primitive attitudes toward disabled people that are widespread in Russia. Society seems largely determined to ignore disabled people if it can, almost to obliterate them from its consciousness.

Another troubling case concerns a young cancer patient, 18-year-old Marina Barlukova, who was due to fly from Moscow to Vladivostok after a course of chemotherapy in the capital. One of Marina’s legs had been amputated, and every move for her was fraught with pain.

She and her father booked with a regional airline, Vladivostok Air. Three seats were required for Barlukova because she had to be horizontal. But airline staff refused to allow her on board on the grounds that she looked ill and that the airline could not assume any responsibility for her – even though she had the necessary medical clearance to fly.

The airline demanded that Barlukova return to the clinic where she had been treated and obtain a document from doctors guaranteeing that she would not become ill or die on board. According to Barlukova’s family, the doctors, although shocked by the airline’s treatment of their patient, complied. However, the airline took two more days to make its own bureaucratic arrangements, choosing to get her trip approved by senior managers.

Vladivostok Air then charged the young woman and her father for the initial flight, from which it had barred her. In the end, Barlukova flew home with another airline, S7, which did not raise any problems. In more than one sense it was the most painful journey of her life.

The Russian tendency to discriminate against people who are sick or disabled, despite their pleas for help, is an important blemish on our country which we need to combat and confront, and which we must never tolerate. Are we ever going to arrive in the 21st century and change our ways?

The family of Marina Barlukova, treated so shabbily by an airline, are considering suing the offending party, just as Alexander Mokin is being urged to do by the Yekaterinburg ombusdsman.

If progress is to be made, court cases and publicity are certainly important. But a more complete and permanent change in mentality can be achieved only when young people are educated and brought up in a spirit of equality.

A good place to start would be our schools. It is time that disabled children were allowed to attend the same classes as other pupils and be accepted by them as equals.

And all of us need to vote with our feet – to boycott and, if possible, blow the whistle on any restaurant, café, or other business that infringes on the most basic human rights of the disabled.

In June, Marina Barlukova will have to fly to Moscow again for another course of chemotherapy. She has not yet chosen an airline.

Galina Stolyarova is a writer for The St. Petersburg Times, an English-language newspaper.


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