One of the promises of democracy is (among others of course) to grant everyone the same possibilities, rights and chances to pursuit to happiness and a fulfilled life. Unfortunately, the reality tells another story. Race, gender, sexual orientation and ethnic background function in some society and country like rocks in the road. But there is another issue, that is often forgotten and ignored: Disability. Discrimination due to disability is not necessary connected to targeted discrimination, but rather to mobile discrimination, institutional discrimination or in general: Discrimination because of lack of acknowledging the special needs.
Barriers because of disability
People with disability face discrimination and problems on a daily basis. It might be that the bus doesn’t offer a barrier free entrance, or the elevator to the train platform is broken down already for weeks, it might be that a crucial administrative building like city hall or police don’t have a ramp or also easily that a restaurant is only accessible by stairs. But not just people in a wheelchair face these issues, also blind, deaf or mute people have to tackle barriers on a daily basis. To find work, go shopping, ask for the way or buying a bus ticket or just entering a train are becoming harder tasks.
People without disabilities can only hardly imagine these situations. Dark museums, dark restaurants and other similar ideas have been established in recent years and attracted visitors, which lead again to a better understanding and again to more inclusiveness. And more and more schools insist on classes in which children with disability learn together next to children without disabilities. The final goal is to grant everyone a new perspective, which should lead to a better understanding and therefore to a more inclusive society in which discrimination is reduced or even not existing anymore.
A place for all?
Not always fighting the discrimination was the chosen way. In democratic societies people with disabilities were often just ignored, which, considering other possibilities, is even a “positive” approach. Hitler and the National-socialist Party wanted to “clean” the human race from disabilities by killing and prohibiting reproduction. Thousands of people were killed, newborns with disabilities were secretly killed to keep the Aryan Race “pure” and offer a mercy killing. While the responsible authorities called this killing also as Euthanasia, it was purely an euphemism, stressing the mercy and the help in the brutal killing. The Soviet Union on the other hand tried not just to ignore people with disabilities, but the efforts to ban them out of public life and make it impossible for them to take part was clearly stated in the ideology of the “New Human”. The traces of this strategy are still partially visible in post-soviet countries.
The New Human
The Soviet Union wanted not just to change the political system, the economic system, but also the culture and the human behavior itself. To support the communistic idea and defend the communistic world order it was crucial to change also the human and make him less egoistic, less self-focused and in general a stronger, more loyal and social person. The soviet party was aware that it had to change the human behavior to achieve the final rule of the proletariat. Therefore, the goal was to create the New human. According to Leon Trotzki, early part of the Bolshevik party, “the human will become incomparably stronger, smarter and finer […] the average human will rise to the level of Aristotle, Goethe, Marx.” A novel which was criticizing the new communist human was the famous book of Michail Bulgakov, Heart of a Dog. Shortly after the publication in 1925 the book was forbidden and only allowed to be published in 1987 again.
Ukraine and the New Human
Needless to say, that the New Human was supposed to be healthy, strong and have no disabilities. In order to push out people with disabilities out of the streets, daily life and society there were several restrictions. Access to work and jobs were restricted, schools for people with special needs were not allowed to open and special treatment was rarely granted. But the most obvious barrier can be still found in the streets. It can be easily seen in Minsk, Moscow, Kyiv and most other post-soviet cities:
The famous underground paths. It is less the pure existence of these places, but rather how they are used. Shops, bakeries, markets, newspaper stands and more can be found mostly in these underground paths that can be entered only by stairs and can be found under every larger square. For example, big parts of the Maidan Square in Kyiv are undermined with shops, supermarkets, and a huge mall. Often these paths are the only possibility to cross a street, which makes the easy task to cross a street for people with disabilities to a true challenge, as escalators, elevators, ramps or similar constructions are never existing. Flattened pavements are also not existing in the streets and holes are rarely closed. All these planned constructions tell constantly that people in wheelchairs are not welcomed on the streets.
Despite this heritage, the Ukrainian government has started to improve on these issues. Ramps are built, integrated urban concepts are installed that also include flatted pavements. Surprisingly many signs are written in braille, the government pays subsidies to companies who give jobs to people with disabilities. In big supermarkets there are special cash-points where deaf or numb people are working In the last Paralympic games in Rio the Ukrainian athletes have achieved the third place when it comes to the medals. Surely these steps in Ukraine are just small ones, but it shows certainly a direction. But the engagement in this field can’t be seen as independent from the recent decommunisation that is taking place in Ukraine since the Euro-Maidan revolution.
Russia keeps ignoring
While the situation of people with disabilities seems to be slowly getting better in Ukraine, Russia hasn’t improved. When in 1980 the Olympic Games were held in Moscow, the Soviet Union refused to host the Paralympics. And the Paralympic games were not shown in the Russian Television. Sochi was supposed to change this all. Many Russian people were surprised about the Paralympics and the athletes. The interest in the sport of people with disabilities was growing. The interest in people with disabilities in general was growing and therefore also the awareness of their special needs and consideration of their daily issues. Unfortunately, this development was ended harshly by the decision of the Olympic Committee to ban the Russian Paralympic team from Rio 2016.
Examples to learn from
People with disabilities are of course not helpless victims, but it would certainly improve their life if society, government and individuals would pay awareness to their special situation and make their life easier by reducing all kind of barriers, in job-life and mobility. Neither the western democracies nor Ukraine nor any other state can proudly say that it has managed to fully integrate people with disabilities, but some states are surely showing positive development in this regard.
Governments and the societies have to be eager to learn from each other to fight this often ignored discrimination. Our empathy and understanding is a clear measurement for our humanity. Not just the government or the democracy itself is in charge to fulfil the given promise of “being free from any discrimination”, but every individual person can act to fight this discrimination every day.