An easy bridge to build for supporting children with disabilities in Russia and the United States

As I arrived in Moscow for the first time in 33 years, I wondered what kind of bridge I might need to build between me and my new colleagues.  We were all interested in supporting children with disabilities – but did we come from the same perspectives? Everything I had heard about Russian children with disabilities suggested the presence of a tremendous disability stigma in Russian society.  While the U.S. also suffers from the presence of disability stigma, we also have a burgeoning disability civil rights movement.  I was eager to learn, but a bit anxious about how everything would unfold.

On the first day of my participation in the U.S.-Russia Social Expertise Exchange (SEE), I visited my host agency, Nastavniki or Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Moscow.  Embed with a warm and spirited feel, the office was clearly a happy place where people were engaging in work that meant a lot to them.  I was immediately embraced with the warm hospitality of kindred spirits walking on the same path towards justice – in this case justice for children with disabilities.

fullsizerenderPresent were 20 women working for five different organizations involved in supporting children with disabilities including and a program supporting foster parents who foster children with disabilities, representatives from Moscow Psychological and Pedagogical University, Moscow Pedagogical University, Moscow State University and Nastavniki).  Also present was the Commissioner on children with disabilities in the child welfare system for the Duma (lower parliament), Dr. Galina Semia.  As I began to give my lecture on social work with children with disabilities in the United States, I realized it wasn’t going to be hard to build a bridge with my Russian colleagues – we were all on the same page even if our service delivery systems looked somewhat different.

While lecturing, the topics that were of most interest to my new Russian colleagues fell into three areas.  First, there was some surprise in the room to learn that children with social and emotional or mental health issues were considered children with disabilities.  The idea that this could be an approach seemed to spur interest in the room regarding re-framing how certain children are thought of and supported.  Second, when I explained the (somewhat confusing) structure of the United States’ service delivery system for children with disabilities age 5+, my Russian colleagues were impressed to learn that every child has a right to a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) per national law.  That the majority of therapeutic services and supports are delivered through government run schools was a topic of great interest.  Also of interest was the free or nearly free Early Intervention program for 0-3 year olds in the U.S.

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Social Model of Disability centers the problem in society is what to focus the intervention on, as opposed to in the individual or their body part

Third, my Russian colleagues listened with great interest when I discussed new theoretical approaches to thinking about disability that are on the rise in the United States.  Specifically, I described the traditional “medical model of disability” in which the individual’s faulty body part is considered the problem, and the service system responds in kind.

I went on to explain how disability human rights advocates have raised the opposing notion of the “social model of disability.”  In this model, it is society that is seen as the problem – in that it does not provide cognitive, hearing, visual, or physical access to people that we call “disabled.” By shifting our way of viewing people with disabilities, we can be more empowering and supportive in our efforts.  This can foster independence as opposed to reliance, which can only be a good thing.

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Medical model of disability in which the individual or their body part is the central problem to focus on for intervention

Spending time talking together across our newly and easily built bridge as I worked my way through my lecture was eye-opening for me as well.  I learned that while the U.S. enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act over 25 years ago, Russia was in many ways on par with levels of physical accessibility in public even though their law was passed much more recently (discussions about recent amendments are presented here).  We agreed, however, that much more is needed and that these laws do not provide a “magic bullet” to solve all problems.  My one hour lecture expanded happily into a stimulating three-hour conversation brimming with ideas for the future.

An easy and very worthwhile bridge to build, indeed.