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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Finding Siberia a Little More Accessible

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In June, the West Norfolk Disability information Service, or WNDiS, from King's Lynn, England, hosted some visitors from a fellow disability rights organization, Finist, from Novosibirsk, showing them how voluntary and statutory organizations work in Norfolk and introducing them to the important things in life like Abbot Ale.

On a return visit in October, West Norfolk Deaf Association manager Peter Weston, WNDiS coordinator Jonathan Toye, WNDiS chairman Andrew Smith and his personal assistant, Paul, set off for Siberia. These are excerpts from a diary kept by Toye during the trip.

Moscow airport, 8:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 1, sitting in a one-square-meter, blue- and white- tiled room in what appears to be the medical center. We came here in an ambulance, packed into the back. There was a ramp stretching away from the plane but we were sent down the vertiginous steps to the left onto the tarmac. We ride in the ambulance through the behind-the-scenes part of the airport to the baggage claim area, with various conveyor belts disappearing into the distance. As Andrew was being transferred from one chair to another, Paul and I were nearly sliced in two by the metal door -- much like a giant garage door -- descending automatically on us. We scuttled out of the way just in time.

Five minutes later, Paul and Peter have gone off to find our luggage, which was supposed to have been transferred through to Novosibirsk automatically, but according to the chaps here, was not. Andrew and I have escaped to the cafe for a beer. The look on the official's face when I suggested that we should do this was something to behold.

It's very noticeable that all of the disabled people in the airport are in or near the medical center. Out of the way? Or is it that there's no other way? I think it's a question of attitude. Some serious changes needed, I think.

Monday, Oct. 2.
We visited members of the Opora organization this morning at a local gym -- fully accessible, run by Sergei, a member of the Finist group that came over to Britain to see us. Their main problem lies in the law that states it might be a good idea to have an accessible environment, but doesn't do anything to enforce it.

A long exchange of views on this thorny subject, comparing experiences, followed by tea and a selection of interesting nibbles, including surprisingly bright orange caviar on buttered bread. Sergei has an astonishingly beautiful assistant, Anya, who gives us a tour of the gym. We try to pay attention.

Tuesday, Oct. 3.
We have driven out to Novosibirsk State University, about an hour's journey. The university is in a lovely setting in the woods. Surrounded by silver birch in an fall shower of gold. We have been talking to Yelena, who is a chemistry professor here, and a group of disabled students. About six years ago, the university and Finist started working together to give more disabled students the opportunity to come here. It's been a struggle, but a real success story.

After, we make our bumpy way to the Ortos clinic on the shore of the Ob Sea, an enormous artificial lake. The clinic is privately owned but open to the public, who can use either their private or social insurance. The clinic specializes in the treatment of spinal injuries, but also has a complete floor given over to the design and production of artificial limbs. They are producing more and more of the component parts themselves.

To the magnificent opera house tonight to see a modern version of "The Marriage of Figaro." Comrade Lenin looks on from the square outside.

Wednesday, Oct. 4.
Paul and Andrew have dismantled the side of Andrew's bed so that his hoist (provided by our Russian friends) would fit underneath, and they have converted the bathroom into a shower room by strategic positioning of rolled-up towels. There's a drain in the floor so it seems OK ... improvisation, Russian-style.

Andrew's wheelchair was sliding about a bit in the minibus so we have braced him in position by tying seatbelts to the front and back of the chair.

We visited the Social Rehabilitation Institute today, which sounds grim but is a brilliant place. It is a technical college for about 300 mainly hearing-impaired students 18 years and older. Had a lovely meal with lots of vodka toasts.

There was a very moving moment when Peter started signing to one of the students in the corridor. Within seconds a group was gathered around him busily signing and responding. A universal language.

Thursday, Oct. 5.
We've been visiting our Siberian friends at work today. Alex is a doctor in a medical assessment center. Into a large reception room with long lines of people stretching down the corridors, waiting patiently for their appointment. Very Kafkaesque.

Up to Alex's office for a chat. Warm greetings and hugs exchanged. I gave him a bottle of Abbot Ale as a present from all of us, as the chaps had been particularly partial to it during their visit with us. He gave a big smile, nipped over to the door and locked it, then opened a cupboard, unlocked a safe and brought out a bottle of Armenian brandy and six glasses ... and I thought I was going to have a less alcoholic day.

A visit with Sergei later in the day. He is deputy director of a state-owned prosthetic company. He showed us around his huge warehouse of a building with workshops producing artificial limbs, shoes, corsets -- everything imaginable.

The environment was a strong contrast to the new, privately run Ortos clinic we had visited earlier in the week. Sergei has been with the company for two years and has put lots of changes in motion. The whole place is being refitted and redecorated. There is a clear dividing line along one corridor, as the linoleum in a delightful 1970s brown turns into modern non-slip flooring.

More food and vodka toasts ...

Our interpreter, Alex, took Peter and me to his friend Igor's apartment this evening. As we arrived outside the building, a number of things happened at once. Alex's mobile rang and Peter discovered, as the car was driving off, that his wallet had fallen out of his pocket. Peter yelled "He's got my wallet!" Alex ended his call and dashed off yelling obscenities at the car, dropping his bag and its contents onto the road. He reappeared some time later, having caught up with the driver of the gypsy cab, and then got an earful from his wife Irina for having subjected their visitors to such a thing. All part of the deal, I thought.

Off to another region tomorrow: the Altai Mountains. More adventures.

Monday, Oct. 9.
We visited a sacred valley near Ongudai, where our excellent local guide, Sasha, explained the spiritual importance of the three distant snow-capped peaks, which people are forbidden to climb, and the smaller mountain in the center of the valley, surrounded by ancient burial mounds called cumun. The people here believe in the gods of earth, air, fire and water.

Climbing up to a sheer rock face that was covered with prehistoric drawings of animals. They reminded me of similar pictograms in Botswana that my brother had shown me.

The banya! We were introduced to the Russian sauna near our log cabin by the river Cantun by Sergei. Searing heat, slapping with birch twigs followed by immersion in freezing cold water. Sergei seemed increasingly enthusiastic with the birch twig. I approached with some trepidation but felt fabulous.

We will visit the labor minister this afternoon then sadly, tomorrow head back to Novosibirsk for more meals punctuated by copious toasts with vodka, no doubt, and then fly home on Wednesday. I will be sorry to leave this great country.