Defending the rights of people with disabilities: new laws and old practices

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Over 20 years ago, back in 1992, the UN General Assembly declared December 3 the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Since then the states – members of the United Nations Organization try to time various events aimed at improving the situation of people with disabilities to coincide with this date. Thus, on December 3, 2014 Russia enacted legislative changes in order to implement Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which it had signed in 2012.

Amendments into a total of 25 Russian laws came into force, which deal with the rights of people with disabilities in various fields: healthcare, education, transportation, social, cultural, electoral, court, informational and political systems. For example, the law “On social welfare for people with disabilities” now reads that discrimination based on disabilities is prohibited and explains that discrimination is “any distinction, exclusion or restriction based on disabilities, which results in limitation or negation of admission, implementation or of equal rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution of the Russian Federation”. The law also introduces a new notion, which is to be used together with the notion of “rehabilitation” – that of “habilitation”, which is “a system and a process of creating abilities for everyday, social, professional and other activities that were previously absent for persons with disabilities” (while “rehabilitation” means restoration of such abilities, which had existed before). Starting July 1, 2016 all the newly built communicational, social, engineering and transportation infrastructure in Russia is required to have all the necessary means for unrestricted access and use by people with disabilities, while starting January 1, 2016 all means of transport are to be equipped with everything necessary to provide access to people with disabilities. .

Amendments adopted into the law “On social welfare” require creation of a federal register of people with disabilities, which will aim to systematize all the data about people with disabilities (including children) in Russia and list their categories of disability, particular disabilities, degree of disability for work, measures for rehabilitation and means allocated for support of each person with disabilities, as well as his/her particular needs.

On the other hand, in spite of this policy for better integration of people with disabilities into social life, we also have the problem of non-implementation of the regulations, which were already adopted earlier and are aimed at defending the rights of people with disabilities. One of the basic human rights (and the right of people with disabilities) is the right to education, which is established by various national and international legal acts. Nevertheless, the lack of possibilities for people with disabilities to implement their rights often results in de facto non-implementation of the laws.

One of the examples of such non-implementation of laws is discrimination of A.Sosnov, a person with vision impairment, who could not enter Saint Petersburg scientific and research psycho-neurological institute named after Bekhterev, although he had successfully passed entry exams for psychiatric internship after magna cum laude graduation from Chuvash University. Institute administration explained its refusal to admit Sosnov by the requirement for its students to have on-the-job training, while special conditions for people with disabilities were absent there (in case of Sonov, additional lighting was required), while the institute lacked financing for this and nobody wanted to deal with solving this problem. Acceptable working conditions for Sosnov, according to individual program for rehabilitation, were rated Class 1-2, while the existing working conditions in the institute were rated Class 3.1 and higher, which is described as “harmful and hazardous conditions”. Thus the institute ignored the fact that conditions for on-the-job training were not the same as working conditions and thus requirements were different in these two cases.

Lawyers of ADC “Memorial” prepared a legal claim on behalf of A.Sosnov. Representative of the libelee has stated during the court hearings that “currently the laws of the Russian Federation do not specify the conditions for education of people with special needs. It is stated that they can get education in accordance with special programs, but the programs themselves are not established and thus Bekhterev Institute uses the existing sanitary regulations as guidance”. However, existing sanitary norms regulate only working conditions and cannot be used as norms for students who study as interns. For this reason the legal representative of Bekhterev Institute, while admitting that special conditions were not established for people with disabilities, asked to make legal claims against the Ministry of education for the absence of adaptive programs, which could be used as guidance by educational institutions. However, the court considered this proposal to be premature, demanding that the issue of whether Sosnov was in fact discriminated against by being deprived of the possibility to study as intern according to the chosen specialization should be considered by court.

It should be noted that an individual rehabilitation program is not obligatory for a person with disabilities to be followed. Ministry of healthcare has also stated its positions on this issue of lack of restrictions for people with disabilities: it has stated earlier that Sosnov had the right to study in Bekhterev Institute in case there were no counter-indications listed in the individual rehabilitation program and in case he had successfully passed entry exams.

It is also important that back in 2013 Department of control over educational institutions had considered appeal by Sosnov and had required to initiate administrative case against Bekhterev Institute based on Article 5.57 Section 1 of the Code of administrative violations (violation of the right to education and/or rights and freedoms of students of educational institutions). But since the required limitation period for administrative claims had expired, the institute was not charged for this violation.

The merits of this case are to be considered by court on December 22, 2014. We hope that the legal amendments which were introduced into the Russian legislation and which aim to improve the situation of people with disabilities will push educational and other institutions in Russia to establish special conditions for these people and prevent discrimination based on disabilities.