The Russian government has attempted to make significant commitments to promote the rights of disabled children by expanding inclusive education across the country, revising curricular standards, and training more teachers. However, rights groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) have argued that Russian schools are still leaving too many disabled children on the fringes of the education system.
While Russia ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2012, according to HRW, the government is still struggling to enforce the rights outlined in the treaty. In terms of education, CRPD Article 24 requires that “persons with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability, and that children with disabilities are not excluded from free and compulsory primary education, or from secondary education, on the basis of disability.” Furthermore, Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) guarantees the right to education on the basis of equal opportunity, directed to the “development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.”
Since 2012, Russian law has provided a choice for families with disabled children to study in a mainstream school, a specialized school, or at home. However, a recent report released by HRW argues that despite substantial policy changes in recent years, the Russian education system is still discriminating against children with disabilities in a variety of ways, including in the ability to make the choice of educational venue offered by Russian law. The report, titled “Left Out: Obstacles to Education for People with Disabilities in Russia,” is based on over two-hundred interviews with families, visits to ten state institutions, meetings with officials from the Ministry of Education and Science, and meetings with officials from the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection.
The report notes that the lack of infrastructure set up to assist disabled persons is a significant barrier to ensuring equal access to education in Russia. Most schools and apartment buildings lack ramps or lifts to help children enter and move around the school. A majority of cities also lack suitable transportation to help children get to and from school. Within mainstream schools, specialized accommodations or properly trained teachers are still extremely rare. Because of these limitations, most children with disabilities remain either segregated in special schools or isolated in their homes.
Since mainstream schools usually lack the appropriate accommodations or refuse to admit children with disabilities, families often to send their students to a specialized schools out of necessity. These schools are usually located far away from children’s families, who lack the financial capacity to visit, and may offer inadequate academic programs. The only alternative for families is to keep children at home where they have little interaction with teachers and their peers.
While laws have changed, attitudes in Russian society are developing at a much slower rate. HRW reported that some school administrators refuse to admit children with disabilities based on false assumptions that they are unable to learn or that their behavior will be disruptive to other students.
In a similar report issued in 2014, titled “Abandoned by the State,” HRW found that “nearly thirty percent of children with disabilities in Russia live in state orphanages where, in addition to a lack of access to education, “they may face violence and neglect”. Traditionally, children born with physical damage or cerebral palsy are labeled to have “multiple severe developmental disabilities” at birth, and doctors strongly recommend families abandon the child. Even families who still take children with cerebral palsy or physical disabilities home oftentimes send the children back to orphanages later on as toddlers. Within these orphanages, children with disabilities frequently spend their days in the “mercy department,” where they lie in bed all day and cannot play with other children or meet with adoptive parents. Once they reach adulthood, having had no chance to develop and no benefit of education, they often face a grim future in a mental asylum.
Individuals not confined to mental asylums still face significant challenges upon reaching adulthood. Due to their lack of significant education, adults with disabilities struggle to attend universities or gain the professional skills necessary to find employment. According to continued research, these individuals are stuck in a cycle of poverty with little resources to help them break out.
Going forward, HRW recommends an increase in efforts by the Russian government to reverse these long-standing practices and severe restrictions on education in accordance with Russia’s commitments under CRPD. HRW advocates for further integration of children with disabilities into the education system. In the long-term, HRW advocates a move away from current practices of categorizing children according to disability and perceived ability to learn, which it says perpetuates false stereotypes and discrimination.