Across the Ocean in a Wheelchair
Vecherniy Ekaterinburg (Ekaterinburg, Russia)
Posted on November 16, 2006
By Elena Zagorodnyaya
|Photo courtesy Elena Leontieva.|
Our People in Arizona
The delegation returned home on November 8 after having spent two weeks on the road. Upon returning, Elena Leontieva shared her impressions and observations from her trip.
According to Elena, planning for the trip began long before this fall, and various issues concerning accessibility for our disabled citizens had to be resolved. For example, a standard transatlantic flight allows only two passengers in wheelchairs, and an agreement had to be reached with the airline to make an exception to the rules in order for our delegation to travel. Much was demanded of our host organization, since according to the Open World Program rules, all delegates live with typical American families (who compete for this privilege). However, not every home is equipped to accommodate a wheelchair user, whose needs begin with a ramp to enter the house and end with special bathroom facilities.
The choice of which city to send the disabled Russians to was of great importance, as the city itself had to be “user friendly” for its slow-moving guests. In the end, the city chosen to host the Russian wheelchair users was Tucson, Arizona. This southern state bordering Mexico has a very warm, mild climate, with most homes built right at ground level, making wheelchair ramps unnecessary. With a population of around 800,000, Tucson consists virtually of only small, one- or two-story buildings, also eliminating the problem of wheelchair accessibility to higher structural levels. It’s worth noting that Tucson did not disappoint its Russian guests. “During our stay in the city, we never encountered even one minor obstacle in our way. It was as if this city was created specially for the comfort of the disabled in wheelchairs,” said Elena Leontieva.
For example, [I understand that] every fourth city bus displays a disabled accessible symbol and is equipped with a ramp and wheelchair lift. There are platform lifts at the entrance to the city’s theater because of a mere six steps to get to the entrance. Supermarkets and other large stores offer electronic scooters for the disabled, allowing them to move freely through the spacious aisles.
The primary goal of our delegation’s visit was to become acquainted with the American system of rehabilitation for the disabled, including sports, equal education, and participation in community life. Our Russian delegation was able to follow the path of a child from elementary school to higher education.
“And here we were taken by surprise,” says Elena Leontieva. “We were made aware that physically disabled people, who are not mentally or psychologically handicapped, are not treated like invalids in our sense of the word. Here they are accepted just like everyone else and are an everyday phenomenon, although they have special needs. All wheelchair users attend regular school along with their non-disabled schoolmates, but are given special places in the classroom where they can fit their wheelchairs. These children have the same schedule and school program as other children. Disabled children who have health problems are attended to by special medical personnel and social workers, who ensure that nothing interferes with the child’s learning. For example, the school nurse administers insulin injections to diabetic children. Schoolchildren with vision problems have Braille textbooks and, if necessary, teachers’ aides help these children do their lessons, even reading parts of the texts out loud. All the while, the children are in mainstream classrooms and they interact with their classmates during recess and breaks. In other words, these children are not isolated as is the case in our country.
We found the same situation at institutions of higher learning when we visited the University of Arizona, which has a special Disability Resource Center. The Disability Resource Center is essential when one considers that of the approximately 37,000 students who attend the university’s various schools and departments, 1,500 are disabled. The University provides all that is needed for every student to receive a full education despite any health problems that may be present. For example, the center houses a computer facility that is adapted for blind students and offers keyboards in Braille, optional voice text readers and printers that can print out textbook pages in Braille. An analogous system for the hearing impaired is available. As for wheelchair users, they study right along with the rest of the student body, as mentioned earlier in this article.
The Russian delegation visited a sports stadium and attended a wheelchair rugby match played by persons with both upper- and lower-body disabilities. It became obvious that even with severe handicaps, Americans continue to lead an active life: “This match was a real battle, where players ran their wheelchairs into each other and fought for the ball like professional athletes, although many did not have full control over their arms due to disabilities,” said Elena Leontieva.
The President Was the Leading Example
All the members of the Russian delegation that spent twelve days in America agreed that this situation is more the norm than the exception for this society on the other side of the ocean. As Elena Leontieva noted, a possible reason for such a natural tolerance toward the disabled may lie in America’s history. One of America's most beloved presidents was Franklin Roosevelt, who used a wheelchair during the last phase of his political career, although he tried to hide this fact in every way possible.
“Now I understand who thought up the compact, active wheelchair,” smiles Elena Leontieva. “Roosevelt tried to hide his wheelchair under his cape so as not to spoil his image as a strong and active politician, and this is why a special small, mobile wheelchair, the forerunner of contemporary chairs, was built for him.”
By the way, the delegation was able to visit the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., where the group spent two days before setting out for Tucson. Among the memorial sculptures exhibited was the President in his wheelchair. In Elena Leontieva's opinion, this image, so successfully placed into Americans' hearts and minds, makes them treat the disabled as equals. Russians can hope that sooner or later this positive “stereotype” will take hold in our country.
[Reprinted with Permission]