GROWING PAINS: The 'Trauma' Kids Feel With 'Different' People

Yesterday, I was setting off in the morning to see two long-time friends, Masha and Dasha, and my five-year-old, Bobby, wanted to come too. Our nanny was horrified at the very idea.

I should explain that 49-year-old Masha and Dasha are Siamese twins, joined at the waist, but as Bobby has known them all his life, he's as unconcerned by their appearance as I am.

"But he really likes them, Natasha," I said. "And they adore him and spoil him rotten."

"No, no" she said, virtually barring the door. "It's psychologically bad for him. He'll have nightmares!"

All my kids, from 11-year-old Sasha through to Bobby, have known Masha and Dasha since they were small and consequently accept them for what they are - two bright, friendly women with a dry sense of humor and a great fondness for the children they never had.

But Natasha's attitude is unhappily typical of the way many people here - and abroad - view mental or physical disability. Since the disabled are generally kept isolated from society in special schools and institutions, the public in Russia rarely comes into contact with them, and ignorance breeds hostility.

Masha and Dasha should know. They've spent their lives trying to prove that they are two separate people, not "a girl with two heads." They were taken away from their mother at birth (she was told they'd died) and handed over to a pediatric institute to be studied. They were kept in a hospital ward until the age of 14 and then sent to a special school for the severely handicapped in Ukraine.

"We were smart and we could run and jump and scramble up trees as well as anyone," recalls Masha. "And so we dreamed of going to a normal school with normal kids, but the very idea was outrageous to the authorities. They thought we'd either traumatize them or they'd traumatize us. Rubbish!"

Russia's laws on integrating handicapped children into state schools have the same eye for fairness that many other countries do. That's on paper, though, and the practice of these laws is very different from the theory behind them.

Disabled children are often brought up in segregated "special" schools, and many of the graduates then go on (like Masha and Dasha) to live out their young lives in the boredom and seclusion of an old people's home.

When we were on vacation in Bulgaria a few years ago, my daughters were befriended by a Down Syndrome girl in the swimming pool. The next day, a group of Russian kids joined in the games but their teacher called them away. "People with Down Syndrome," she lectured in a voice loud enough for the little girl to hear, "are violent and unpredictable. Don't go near her again."

Well, they say that attitudes are changing. Let's hope so - because they need to.