Gray Brick Road

by Dmitry Markov

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THIS IS the story of Ruslan, a single disabled father raising his sick son, Vitya, in the Russian city of Pskov. Ruslan’s daily life is complicated. Restricted to a wheelchair, his time is predominantly occupied by concerns of transportation and the struggle to provide food and safety for young Vitya. The family is really on the edge.

One of the major problems for Ruslan is that most of the city space is not accessible. Daily, he has to travel 10-12 kilometers from his home to the city market – crossing railways, tackling pavement, curbs, and potholes.

By Russian law, in the event that a father fails to perform his duties – sending his child to school and applying for disability status – he may be restricted in his parental rights and his child may be taken into state custody. Unfortunately, the system does not provide disabled people with daily care and support at home to alleviate this problem. Nonetheless, there are non-profit organizations and individuals in the city who have taken over these functions. In general, this is a commentary on the status of socially disadvantaged groups in Russia, where private groups are often forced to fill in when the state has fallen short.

I do volunteer work with disabled children for an NGO called Rostok. First and foremost, I am stunned by this story. Looking at a lonely, ill person doing his best to take care of his son, I am impressed by Ruslan’s determination to survive and provide for Vitya. I think his story is a good example for healthy people to understand what it is they take for granted.

The social exclusion of disabled people is an important issue, and a difficult one to overcome in Russia. On one hand, most people don’t consider a disabled person as being on equal footing. People donate money to feel good about “solving the problem”, but they do not think about the depth or complexity of the situation. Discussions of human rights to work and education are presented only as abstract and immaterial concepts, when in fact they are fundamental to the well being of any person, disabled or not. On the other hand, people with disabilities are not particularly keen to change this. Ruslan, who grew up in a wheelchair, does not seek self improvement. He does not look for work or to advance his education. These prevailing attitudes only help to position disabled people as victims. Self perpetuating, they do not address the root causes of, or fundamental solutions to, the social stigmatization of disabled people.

This story’s focus is on the relationship between a father and son who are living in very difficult and limited circumstances. It is not intended as a study on poverty or marginalized communities (the tragic background of Vitya and Ruslan's situation only reinforces the impression that we should care). But what can we say about a man who has lived 40 years in a wheelchair? I think Ruslan’s case can only be discussed in the context of his basic rights and the appropriate level of social support. However, in respect to his son, Vitya, we can expect some progress. Increasingly in the city, there are new services for people with disabilities. Society is gradually learning to accept these people and, as with Rostock and the other aid organizations, we just have to keep moving in the right direction. Perhaps the changes are not so significant for each individual case, but eventually we will reach a fundamental shift. If we keep working things will begin to change.

Ruslan’s hand-driven wheelchair. Vitya spends most of the way in dad’s lap.

Most of the city market folk know Ruslan, and have been helping him and his son for a number of years by putting together groceries and small amounts of money.

By Russian law, in the event that a father fails to perform his duties – sending a kid to school, applying for disability status – he may be restricted in his parental rights, and in Ruslan’s case the authorities may take Vitya to an orphanage. Unfortunately, the state system does not provide such people with daily care and support. Nonetheless, there are non-profit organizations and individuals in the city who have taken on these functions.

Sometimes Ruslan visits the church. The parish and priest are always ready to help the father and son.

Ruslan’s house burned down a few years ago. Today, he is living in a shabby hut on the outskirts of the city. There is no water supply, sewer, or central heating.

This fall, the guardianship authorities took Vitya away and placed him in a shelter. Ruslan could sue against the decision, but then he would have to organize school preparation routines and medical check-ups of his son on his own. With no accessibility, he physically cannot visit the doctor, whose office is on the third floor of the clinic. Thus, Ruslan had to sign the consent – otherwise he could have been charged with limiting the child’s rights to education.

To a certain extent, there are several state institutions and experts involved in the life of Ruslan's family. However, almost all of them have only supervisory or inspectional functions, providing no actual support services.

At present, Vitya spends his weekdays at school and at a shelter, going home with his father only on weekends. Ruslan comes to the shelter almost daily to see his son in the yard.

With some help from volunteers, Ruslan managed to find temporary social housing. Vitya has been cleared for school and passed the medical disability check-up. However, the chief result of this support is that the family has been preserved.


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