CONNECT/US-RUSSIA(CONNECT) is a Minneapolis-based organization with a mission to promote a more humane and peaceful world by embracing critical issues facing the United States and the former Soviet Union through the creation of collaborative relationships. CONNECT recently received a grant from the Open World Leadership Center to bring a delegation of professionals from Russia to Minnesota. The Open World Program, based in Washington, DC, brings emerging Russian leaders to the U.S. on 10-day programs to experience U.S. democracy and free enterprise in action in communities across the United States.
This program, “Serving Russians with Disabilities,” provided an opportunity for seven delegates to visit the Twin Cities and obtain information to enhance the work of their organizations back in Russia. CONNECT designed a professional agenda to familiarize delegates with:
• educational programs for children with limited mental and physical abilities;
• social adaptation and integration programs;
• general care programs;
• integrated measures of social assistance;
• employment issues and programs;
• funding issues and sources;
• technology utilization.
On June 24, 2005, the Russian delegates visited with the Minnesota Business Leadership Network at Medtronic to learn about each other’s programs for the disabled. In their discussions, the delegates and the Business Leadership Network member companies noted the many similarities between the US and Russian services or lack of services for people with disabilities.
Russian parents have a more passive role in caring for their child. The reasons for this are:
1. The distance between the cities’ programs and the people needing those services.
Because of their country’s massive size, the Russian delegates pointed out that servicing people with disabilities is difficult. Many children with disabilities have to live at the school during the week and are only able to go home on the weekends. This ongoing disconnection between the parents and children plays a factor in the parents’ lack of involvement to advocate for their children’s needs.
2. The idea that the Russian state should provide for the services and programs for a person with a disability.
It is the state’s role, not the parents’ or family’s role, to give the children the education and training they need to become self-sufficient. This is the biggest difference between the two countries’ means of servicing people with disabilities. In Minnesota, especially, our non-profit advocate organizations work through government and other funding sources to provide better treatment, education, job training, and employment for the disabled.
The seven delegates represented a variety of Non-government Organizations (NGOs) and rehabilitation centers from cities across Russia. In Novosibirsk, Tamara Antolyevna Polenova is the Director of Social Work for the transition services for children. Her organization’s services are more advanced than the transition services in Minnesota. Local employers and agencies learned how the Russian transition service provides training and other emotional and psychological care for the disabled as they shift into the workforce. One institution has a training/mentoring program that pairs people with disabilities together to help each other adjust and adapt to living with a disability and to work with other people with disabilities in the orphanages and the veterans’ hospitals.
Other areas of Russia are not as advanced as Novosibirsk. Although Polenova does not see many people with disabilities committing crimes in her region, the area where Valeriy Vladimirovich Chereshnev works with disabled youth is struggling to transition children with disabilities as well as trying to keep them out of the correctional system. His organization is in the process of creating an educational and correctional program to help adolescents shift more easily into society by having better educational and employment opportunities.
Similar to the situation in the U.S., funding is a critical issue in Russia. In Chereshnev’s city, there are 12,000 children with disabilities and only enough funding each year to serve 1,000 children. The rest of the children are expected to get services from other areas of the state, which often provide services that are not as effective.
Chereshnev stated, “Businesses and people with disabilities live in different realms. Even though we have laws that state that businesses have to have a 3% quota for employees with disabilities, no businesses are fined if they refuse to hire a person with a disability.” In contrast, the United States has Affirmative Action business guidelines in place for people of minority status, but the government does not regulate these guidelines for people with disabilities. Chereshnev also added that people with disabilities, who are entrepreneurs, have no insurance even though the government run businesses do. This sure sounds familiar to the healthcare crisis in Minnesota.
The organization that Polenova runs has business leaders on their board of trustees, however, most of the financial support the organization receives comes from the government rather than from these businesses. They do, however, have strong community leaders who help create jobs for disabled people and they provide the transition services for free for people with disabilities.
By the end of the day, the Minnesota Business Leadership Network (BLN) and Access Press agreed that there is a need to travel to Russia to learn from the Russian organizations. All of the delegates were very excited that Minnesota had a disability newspaper and they all took copies to share within their regions.
Access Press plans to incorporate a Russia/Minnesota section in the upcoming issues of the newspaper to cover highlights of the great work happening over there. The goal of this new section will be to stay connected and informed about the Russian programs and to learn how we might be able to incorporate some of their experience into our Minnesota programs.