When 'yes I can,' suddenly becomes 'no you can’t': Fiona Clark looks at how the International Paralympic Committee’s decision to ban Russia’s entire Paralympic team does nothing to help disabled groups in Russia.
When Moscow hosted the 1980 Olympic games a government representative was asked why there was no Paralympic team. He answered "Russia has no invalids" - well, none that could be seen anyway. It was Soviet policy to remove disabled children from their families and house them in institutions called 'internats' on the outskirts of cities where no one had to see these less-than-perfect beings.
I went to one of these homes in 1990. The best you could say about it was that it was clean. The children were in cots or wheelchairs but there was nothing for them to play with and no signs that any formal education was afforded to them. They were fed and watered, but that was about it. And this was a good home - or we wouldn't have been allowed in back in those Soviet days.
Last year, Human Rights Watch wrote a report that outlined the reforms enacted by the government to try and improve the lives of disabled children. Legislation enacted in theory put an end to the term "uneducable'' by making education mandatory for all children. But despite the legislation little has been implemented. Reports still abound of children kept in isolated in rooms where they do nothing but lie on the floor, and charities that support programs for physical therapy for disabled children in homes close to Moscow say staff's attitudes to these children verges on Dickensian. It's not that they are unwilling to help but that they sincerely believe that doing anything for them beyond keeping them alive is a waste of time because nothing can be done for these poor souls. That is, until they see the results.
And that's where Russia's Paralympic team comes in. Nothing has done more to boost the profile of people with disabilities than the Paralympic team at the now infamous Sochi games. For once people in wheelchairs were out on the streets - a rarity in Russia - let alone seen competing in sports under the national flag. The voice of groups who push for disabled rights was listened to - even given airtime on TV.
The Sochi Games provided a rare platform for Paralympian athletes in a country with ingrained prejudices
But that's a small drop in the ocean of endemic discrimination and outright hostility toward people with disabilities. Last year Komsomolskaya Pradva published an article on its website that took aim at Australian christian evangelist, Nick Vujicic, who was born with no arms and legs, saying people like him were "defective specimens" who should "die at once."
And those with mental illnesses don't fare any better. The independent pollsters, the Levada Center, did a survey last year that showed 75 percent of the 800 respondents favored the involuntary incarceration of the mentally ill. A prominent psychiatrist and reformer claimed it was xenophobia sparked by an inappropriate belief that anyone who is different is dangerous.
And it seems they're also contagious. One woman complained on a local Moscow TV channel that she didn't want a ramp allowing disabled access to a school opposite her because she was worried about her own children's health. She did add on a slightly more empathetic but perverse note, that it would make her "sad to see them."
Probably not as sad as the team that's now been excluded from the games in a collective punishment ban. The WADA report says 35 out of 577 adverse results related to Paralympic sport. That's about 6 percent. They've since added another 11 adverse results out of 27 tests relating to Paralympians bring the total number of Sochi drug cheats to 46 or 7.6 percent of the previous team. And they know who these cheats are - yet the whole 2016 team is banned.
WADA claims more tests involving Paralympians will be revealed but it's hard to believe that the whole team is dirty, despite a 'medals over morals' state-sponsored doping scam.
For Rio the International Olympic Committee allowed individual sports to decide on their athletes despite 93.9 percent of the adverse drugs test results belonging to able-bodied athletes. Critics said the less-well funded sports allowed the able-bodied Russian athletes in because they couldn't afford the legal fees generated by the excluded athletes' appeals, but the individual Paralympic sports weren't accorded the luxury of freedom of choice.
Mind the gap
These athletes have walked a very difficult path to get to these games and a very different one to their western counterparts. As Kate Ansell, a disabled UK reporter for the UK's Channel Four news, put it after her visit to Russia in 2014: "As a disabled person visiting Russia for the first time, it was like a reminder of the UK 20 or 30 years ago: people are beginning to realize that disabled people should have equal rights, and some of the authorities have begun to recognize that too. But there is a huge gap between this recognition and the reality."
Bridging that gap requires a lot of hard work and education, but the IPC's decision is akin to using a sledge-hammer to crack a nut. While the overwhelming number of cheats is in the able-bodied team it's condemning 92.4 percent of a team to the sin-bin for the crimes of the minority- and the decision makes the fight to change the plight of Russia's disabled that much harder. In this instance perhaps there is a bigger picture to consider because changing that "no I can't" to a "yes I can" is no mean feat in a country with ingrained prejudices against the disabled and mentally ill.