As I have mentioned in a few previous posts, the Motherland tends to be somewhat inaccessible for those of us with disabilities. That much is, at this point, a given. But what may surprise you, and what certainly continues to surprise me, is that due to certain societal attitudes and a lingering sense of collective duty, there are aspects of everyday life that are more accessible here than in the US or Western Europe. These two statements taken together may seem contradictory, or just plain odd. Let me explain.
Many aspects of everyday life in Russia, such as buildings, transport, and public space, are inaccessible due to a general lack of infrastructure. That is to say, the country has not yet added things like lifts, automatic doors, wheelchair ramps, or accessible toilet stalls (In Russia you are lucky if the toilet you find is A.) Functional and not filthy and B.) Not a port-a-potty or hole in the floor. But Russian toilets, my friends, could be the topic for a whole other post.) There is however, another side to accessibility which, while living in places like the US and France, I thought of infrequently. I’ll call it the Community Factor. The Community Factor, and its absence, plays a role in every aspect of our lives, but I want to focus here on the Community Factor in public transportation. You see, Moscow’s public transportation network, like the networks in most other former Soviet cities, is excellent. Much better than say the network in the Midwestern Megapolis that I usually call home. It is even better than the networks in London (Yes. The Moscow Metro beats the Tube. Hands down.) and New York.
It is undeniable that certain public transportation networks in the United States have in place solid disability access infrastructure. It is not perfect by any means, but it is at least present. What we do not always have, however, in these places is a strong sense of collective responsibility. I know. This post is starting to smell faintly of academic mumbo-jumbo, which I despise, even in academia, so let me be perfectly clear. What I mean is that when you are disabled and trying to make use, in the United States, of a public transport system–be it metro, bus, or suburban rail–you will most certainly encounter some difficulties. The steps up to the suburban train, for example, might be steep and high, and there will be no ramp. A particular metro entrance might only have turnstiles, which are very very difficult to negotiate with a mobility aid. Or much more commonly, you will find that the transport vehicle you just boarded is crowded. Every seat is occupied, even those reserved for passengers with disabilities. In the United States the competitive mentality of every-man-for-himself-in-the-Great-Rat-Race-and-to-hell-with-everybody-else is quite pervasive, especially in larger cities. This means that seated transport riders, in the isolation of their work-a-day lives might not even notice that a passenger with a disability is struggling to nudge her wheelchair into the designated wheelchair spot or barely maintaing her precarious aided balance on shaky legs made even shakier by vehicular movement. There are of course those lovely, considerate individuals who do take notice and immediately offer to help however they can, even if it means giving up the seat they were comfortably resting in for the first time all day. But whether or not this happens depends entirely on the individual attitudes of the other transport passengers. There is no sense of collective obligation, no general recognition that some members of the community may have more difficulty accessing transportation, no sense that it is the duty of the other community members to help make access possible or easier. In the United States, the presence of the Community Factor is very much a matter of chance. You may enter a bus or metro wagon with ten passengers who immediately offer to give up their seat or make it easier for you+aid to move down the crowded aisle to the door. Or you may enter and find that no one is willing to do anything. They fought for those seats, fair and square, and they sure as heck aren’t giving them up. The scenario is not entirely common, fortunately, but it does happen. And when it does, here’s the thing: No one scolds or looks daggers at the folk who refuse to give up the seats they have so fought to occupy. There are of course rare rare exceptions, but usually no one says anything. People avert their eyes and pretend not to notice. They retreat into their isolated spheres, where their only interlocutors are their MP3 players, iPhones, and iPads.
Such is not the case here in the Motherland. There may be little disability infrastructure, but there is a touch of compensation, in that Russians do take notice when they see someone struggling to access something, whether it means opening a heavy door or making one’s way through a line of standing riders to the metro exit, and they almost always begin to help. Immediately. They do not usually ask (which admittedly can be awkward and can cause other issues, but more on that later). They just do it. They see a struggle, and they begin to offer aid. Or they help find a solution to the access problem at hand. Russians are very resourceful folk. More than once I have seen someone I hardly known study, on my behalf, the terrain to be crossed and try to come up with an alternative route that will be easier for me to traverse. I was not only grateful, I was in awe. I want to stress here, however, that I have found that the Community Factor is most prevalent on the bus and especially on the Moscow Metro. As the metro leaves every station, just as the loudspeaker has announced that the doors are closing and the train pulls away, the pre-recorded voice says clearly and carefully: “Respected passengers. Be polite. Give up your seats for invalids (re: passengers with disabilities), the elderly, passengers with children, and pregnant women.” And they do it. Every single time. And if they don’t? Well. Let me tell you what happens if they don’t. First, other passengers, particularly older women who lived through World War II and years of Soviet shortages, begin to look daggers at every single healthy looking young man on the metro who happens to be occupying a seat. It is the healthy young man’s duty, you see, to immediately jump up and offer his seat to anyone who may need it more than him. If (rarely) no one offers to get up, then the scolding commences. And I mean verbal, public scolding. “Young man! Give up your seat for the invalid! Can’t you see it’s difficult for her to stand? Goodness, what’s wrong with your children these days? Who brought you up?? In the Soviet period, this never would have happened…” And so it continues, until some young fellow removes his bottom from his chair and I or the old lady by the doors or the pregnant woman in the aisle take over the seat. And it is not always the old babushki who who see it as their duty to scold those members of the community failing to do their part. Young people play this role just as easily. Once, on a crowded rush hour train, a rather drunk young fellow, who under other circumstances I very likely would have tried to stay far away from, screamed at a seated boy of about nineteen who, until then, had been blissfully absorbed in his MP3 player. “Hey! You! Get up!! Can’t you see she’s using a crutch! Give! Up! Your! Seat!”
Wow, right? It may be harsh or rather hard. It may at times be too much. And yes, sometimes, situations like the one I just described make me feel super awkward and even guilty. I do not feel for example that police tactics (e.g. shaming and screaming and demanding) are ever appropriate, and I do not like seeing them employed on my behalf. That said, however, I do not have any bones to pick with the idea of the Community Factor or the gentler versions of its implementation that I have experienced. Some people have more trouble than others accessing and utilizing public services that are meant for all. Why shouldn’t we have a stronger sense of obligation to help make these places easier and more accessible? What is the advantage of isolated individualism and feigned collective ignorance? I am not sure.