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30 Mar, 2009 02:43

Disabled ramp up for rights fight

Inaccessible airports, companies’ policies violating human rights – it turns travel for the disabled in Russia into a nightmare. Fed up with discrimination from airlines, they are now going to courts to force changes.

Vera Shishkina is the head of the disabled people’s society in the Perm region in the Urals and she has been in a wheelchair almost her entire life. Her job often involves travel, but the airport in the city of Perm has always been a huge stumbling block.

“The ramp here is really uncomfortable. It's at a wrong angle, and is just too steep. There is no way a person in a wheelchair can get up it alone,” she complained.

After a routine check from transport authorities, the airport and its ramp ended up in court. Vera's society was called to provide evidence. The case was settled out-of-court, with the airport agreeing to make all necessary renovations.

Now, Vera says, it's become much more comfortable.

“For example, there's now an information panel and I can see where I need to go if I want the first aid office or the restrooms,” she said.

Special phone booths have been installed at the airport and now disabled passengers can use most facilities at the terminal without having to ask strangers for help.

A special access point has also been added to the baggage room, making it equally comfortable for anyone who knocks.

These changes, however, didn't happen overnight.

According to Lola Tyvodar from the Perm Airport Press Service, they worked together with Vera Shishkina and her association to form a plan outlining “what needs to be done, and when”.

She said, “The work is almost finished. We're just waiting for the snow to melt so we can finish the ramps outside. We want equal access to our airport – for all passengers.”

So do the passengers. However, not all air travel in Russia is as accommodating. Disabled people in Russia still have to fight to be treated like everyone else and often it's a losing battle.

Pavel Obiukh was barred from boarding an S7 Airlines flight to Central Russia on a business trip for his work. He's blind, and according to airline officials, could not fly alone.
Blindness hasn't stopped him from working, but that day the airline did.

“I always fly alone. And all of a sudden, an airline tells me I can't. It’s against federal laws – but it didn't matter. So I have filed a complaint, asking for a public apology – and a change of company regulations to end their prejudice. They refused – so now we are taking this to court,” he said.

Pavel's story is not unique. A similar one involving S7 happened in 2007. But despite losing a court case, being fined and frequent demands from human rights groups and lawyers to comply with laws on disabled access, the company's policy hasn't changed.