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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Empowered, Entitled, Unemployed

The question haunts Russia's disabled.

Arkady Murashuv heard it years ago, when he applied to journalism school. An industrial accident had ended his career in a metal factory. He thought he might learn a new trade, work from his bed editing copy or checking facts. The admissions committee turned him down.

"You're sick," they told him. "You can't study. That's that."

Behind the gruff rejection, Murashuv sensed the disbelief: Why bother working when you can collect a comfortable pension? Why bother learning when you've been ruled unfit? Why bother?

The questions assume -- as Russian law has for decades assumed -- that disabled citizens need protection, help, handouts.

It is an attitude that disabled-rights activists increasingly resent. They find the coddling condescending, the sympathy smothering. They refuse to stay shut up in their apartments, pleading for perks.

Instead, they have launched a swelling civil-rights movement that aims to change the way Russians look at their disabled comrades -- and the way disabled citizens look at themselves.

The activists recorded a symbolic victory when President Boris Yeltsin signed a law in November guaranteeing disabled citizens equal access to education, employment, transportation and services.

Most important, the new law no longer defines an "invalid" as "someone unable to work."

So far, the government has not allocated money to turn the promising rhetoric into reality. But disabled leaders still consider the law a triumph. As a political statement, they say, it is worth cheering.

"Before, the government considered disabled people unproductive members of society. The state took care of them quite simply -- gave out a pension and figured they didn't have to worry about anything else," said Alexander Lomakin, chairman of the All-Russian Society of the Disabled. "Now, we have this law that shows a disabled person has all the rights of other citizens, and we need to help him return to a normal, productive life."

Traditionally, any Russian with a physical or mental disability -- from a limp to chronic stomach troubles to an amputated arm -- has been able to register as an "invalid." That status entitles them to a monthly pension and privileges: free wheelchairs, cheap cars, subsidized phone service, personal tutors, even home delivery of election ballots. Disabled Russians can cut in line at the bread store, ride the subway free and buy cut-rate airline tickets.

Such benefits have undoubtedly made life easier. But they also have reinforced the stereotype that disabled citizens cannot join mainstream society.

When he sought to enter journalism school, Murashuv told the admissions committee that his mind remained agile even if his legs were useless. His reasoning impressed no one.

But Russians with limited mobility, such as Murashuv, did not join forces until 1989, when the All-Russia Society for the Disabled was founded. Supported by the society's 2.2 million members, Lomakin has led the new civil-rights push.

He is fighting for all disabled citizens, but he speaks with special passion -- and personal experience -- about the troubles plaguing those who must use braces or canes or wheelchairs to get around.

Lomakin's most urgent goal is to pry open jobs for disabled adults like himself. He estimates that less than 15 percent of disabled adults who want to work hold jobs. Thousands of those who do earn paychecks have settled in special factories run by the All-Russia Society for the Disabled.

The new civil-rights law requires businesses with more than 30 employees to set aside at least 3 percent of their jobs for disabled Russians. Companies that ignore the quota must pay into a government fund to create employment opportunities.

Advocates for the disabled applaud the quota system -- in theory. But they doubt that it will be enforced any time soon.

Lomakin said gloomily, "Tell me when we'll get out of this economic crisis, and I'll tell you when the law will be implemented."

The Soviet Union's flat-out ban on disabled workers has disintegrated in the past decade. Yet it remains difficult for anyone with a disability to find work.

-- they cannot study at regular schools or earn money at regular jobs