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Unequal access As the Russian school year begins, it’s clear that laws aren’t enough to ensure students with disabilities receive fair treatment

Source: Meduza
Kirill Zykov / Sputnik / imago-images / Scanpix / LETA

Story by Bereg. Translation by Sasha Molotkova.

In Russia, people with disabilities are gradually starting to receive better access to education, but getting into college remains a considerable challenge. The problems start with Russia’s college aptitude test, the EGE. In 2022, Anton Ledovsky, a high school senior with spinal muscular atrophy, was denied the accommodations he needed to take the exam. In 2023, the story of Kirill Dubinin, a visually impaired student who also failed to receive necessary accommodations for the EGE garnered widespread media attention. This is despite the fact that Russia has laws which should, in theory, guarantee those with disabilities equal access to the educational system. The Bereg independent journalism collective explores why applicants and students with disabilities still receive unequal treatment at the university level. With Bereg’s permission, Meduza is publishing an abridged English-language version of their findings.

A grueling journey to higher education

Russians with disabilities were only granted the right to a mainstream education (placing students with special education needs in a general education classroom) in 2013. From then on, children with autism, cerebral palsy, and blindness, as well as others who, according to the law, could be categorized as having “special educational needs,” could legally attend a regular kindergarten, school, or college. In turn, educational institutions were tasked with providing the necessary accommodations to facilitate this.

Since then, inclusivity at the kindergarten and school level has improved, although parents are still often forced to defend their children’s rights in court or through departmental complaint procedures. But nonprofits that help to promote inclusive education won’t comment on the situation in higher education, because even they often don’t know much about how the law is implemented.

In 2021, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova, voiced her concern: “Unfortunately, [in vocational and higher education] we’re experiencing a greater number of problems than in [kindergarten and school].”

Around the same time, the World Bank conducted an analysis of the problems in Russia that prevent people with disabilities from finding work. Of particular concern was that the number of disabled people who have received higher education is two times lower than the number of non-disabled people. This, of course, has a negative impact on their ability to find employment. Nonprofit organization representatives who did agree to answer questions about the situation in higher education drew attention to a whole host of issues that prevent people with disabilities from going on to college — despite the promise of scholarships for those with certain disabilities.

Free introductory courses at several universities and state-funded bachelor’s or specialist’s degree programs are available to:

  • Disabled children
  • People with group I and II disabilities
  • Those who are disabled from childhood
  • Those who are disabled due to war injuries or illnesses obtained during military service
  • Combat veterans

Crucially, however, access to the state-subsidized degree program is subject to a competitive selection process within the framework of a quota (separate from the general admissions process) and an EGE grade above the threshold set by the university. The number of subsidized places must make up at least 10% of the total overall university places and are reserved not only for those with disabilities but also for other disadvantaged individuals, such as orphans.

Exams are inaccessible

A variety of rules (outlined in this webinar) exist to help people with disabilities and/or “special educational needs” feel comfortable while taking exams. This means they can take Russia’s college aptitude test, the EGE, in whichever conditions are most suitable for them, as stipulated by а commission of specialized doctors. For instance, a student may be permitted to take the exam on a computer or with the help of a sign language interpreter. However, the World Bank report draws attention to the fact that the “procedures for introducing special adaptations are not clearly defined, which slows their implementation by educational institutions.” Lawyer Gregory Borisov elaborates: “They can’t prevent [a person with a disability] from taking the EGE, but a specialized commission has to prescribe the necessary accommodations. The problem is, these regional commissions often operate extremely poorly.”

If the exams go ahead, the applicant can send the results to their preferred college. If the student believes they won’t be able to pass the EGE, or if the correct conditions haven’t been provided, they have the option of taking a simplified version. If they do this, however, they still need to take additional exams at the college before being admitted to a degree program (special provisions are also required to be provided there, as with the final exams).

“In reality, the process of getting into a university is very complicated for [people with disabilities] because after passing [a simplified exam], they essentially have two options: go to a vocational school and then apply to college — which requires more years of study — or go in person to the college (which can be problematic for those with disabilities, especially if the buildings don’t have ramps) to take the additional exams,” explained Elena Zumina, lawyer at the SMA Family Foundation, an organization which offers support to people with spinal muscular atrophy. “Also, they’ll likely have to go there more than once. It’s a stark contrast to what’s required from kids without disabilities, who simply need to send their EGE results electronically from the comfort of their own home.”

Real accommodations are lacking

One of the primary issues is that, despite the law, not every space is accessible. This isn’t just limited to the availability of wheelchair ramps. “According to the deputy chairman of the All-Russian Society for Disabled Persons, Mikhail Osokin, high school graduates choose their colleges based on the amenities provided by the educational institutions over any professional aspirations they may have,” reported the Social Information Agency in June 2022. “If we take, for example, young people with hearing impairments, there are only eight educational institutions in the country where their needs can be met. Such institutions include the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, Vladimir State University, and Chelyabinsk State University. Crucially, these establishments offer invaluable assistance in the form of sign language interpreters, who work alongside students on a permanent basis, and specialized learning methodologies. Despite this, there are limitation since it’s impossible to provide sign language interpretation throughout all departments, meaning students are forced to choose from a small number of majors.”

In its report on inclusivity at colleges, the student publication Groza wrote that colleges are required to have “accessibility passports” which indicate the accessibility of every building and educational process. “They often reveal that the university doesn’t adhere to the standards — as is the case with this passport for one of the buildings at Kazan University,” Groza stated. The same rules apply to student dormitories. They must be accessible to all students who have certain mobility requirements — for example, there must be ramps and handrails. “In practice, many universities don’t comply with the rules, meaning students with disabilities are often forced to rent apartments or live at home,” wrote Groza.

It can also be challenging for students to take exams and tests. “For instance, a person with cerebral palsy studies in college but cannot write due to hyperkinesis. Meanwhile, the professor only wants to see work submitted in a hand-written format. It’s a difficult situation,” said Kuzmina. “Obviously, it’s possible to come to an agreement with the rector, but that requires extra time and stress. All the while, the professor is relentless and fundamentally ignores the work of the disabled student, saying they should go study abroad. This is exactly what happened to a friend of mine. In the end, a different professor ended up coordinating his exams, and he graduated with highest honors.”

Laws aren’t enough

In a conversation with Bereg, lawyer Grigory Borisov said that Russian legislation surrounding disability was, in and of itself, fairly modern: “We have really good laws and Russia complies with all the international standards.” The problem, rather, is one of implementation and approach, which could be improved in a variety of ways. Ultimately, the situation in higher education depends on what happens at the high school, middle school, and elementary school levels. The changes that have been made there aren’t enough.

“I am convinced that disabled children (especially those who are mentally capable) should study in the mainstream system,” wrote Kuzmina. “Crucially, this should begin as early as possible and then gradually flow into college. Children who have grown up surrounded by other children in, for example, wheelchairs, don’t see the wheelchair. They perceive their peers as equals. Then, at university or as adults, they won’t feel shock or hostility toward a person with a disability. Adults find it more difficult than children to adjust to a peer who might seem a little different.”

Story by Daria Sarkisyan

Translation by Sasha Molotkova

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