Camera-Wielding Social Worker Exposes the Stigmatization of Disability

Dmitry Markov‘s telling of a father and son’s struggle reveals love and resourcefulness in the absence of Russian state support


Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series profiling Catchlight Activist Award winners. Photographer Dmitry Markov was a finalist for his series Gray Brick Road.


Words and photos by Dmitry Markov

This is the story of Ruslan, a single disabled father raising his sick son, Vitya, in the Russian city of Pskov. Ruslan’s daily life is complicated. Restricted to a wheelchair, his time is predominantly occupied by concerns of transportation and the struggle to provide food and safety for young Vitya.

The family is really on the edge.

Ruslan’s hand-driven wheelchair. Vitya spends most of the way in dad’s lap.

By Russian law, in the event that a father fails to perform his duties — sending his child to school and applying for disability status — he may be restricted in his parental rights and his child may be taken into state custody. Unfortunately, the system does not provide disabled people with daily care and support at home to alleviate this problem. Nonetheless, there are non-profit organizations and individuals in the city who have taken over these functions.

These photographs are a commentary on the status of socially disadvantaged groups in Russia, where private groups are often forced to fill in when the state has fallen short.

By Russian law, in the event that a father fails to perform his duties — sending a kid to school, applying for disability status — he may be restricted in his parental rights, and in Ruslan’s case the authorities may take Vitya to an orphanage. Unfortunately, the state system does not provide such people with daily care and support. Nonetheless, there are non-profit organizations and individuals in the city who have taken on these functions.
To a certain extent, there are several state institutions and experts involved in the life of Ruslan’s family. However, almost all of them have only supervisory or inspectional functions, providing no actual support services.
At present, Vitya spends his weekdays at school and at a shelter, going home with his father only on weekends. Ruslan comes to the shelter almost daily to see his son in the yard.

I volunteer with disabled children for an NGO called Rostok. First and foremost, I am stunned by Ruslan’s story. Looking at a lonely, ill person doing his best to take care of his son, I am impressed by his determination to survive and provide for Vitya. His story is moment for reflection. His story is one in which healthy people may understand the many things they take for granted.

Sometimes Ruslan visits the church. The parish and priest are always ready to help the father and son.

The social exclusion of disabled people is an important issue … and a difficult one to overcome in Russia.

Most Russians don’t consider a disabled person as being on equal footing. People donate money to feel good about “solving the problem” but they do not think about the depth or complexity of the situation. Discussions of human rights to work and education are presented only as abstract and immaterial concepts, when in fact they are fundamental to the well being of any person, disabled or not.

Compounding the issue, very many people with disabilities are not particularly keen, or positioned, to change the situation. Ruslan, who grew up in a wheelchair, does not seek self improvement; he does not look for work or to advance his education. Prevailing attitudes only help to position disabled people as victims. These self-perpetuating attitudes do not address the root causes of, or fundamental solutions to, the social stigmatization of disabled people.

Most of the city market folk know Ruslan, and have been helping him and his son for a number of years by putting together groceries and small amounts of money.
Ruslan’s house burned down a few years ago. Today, he is living in a shabby hut on the outskirts of the city. There is no water supply, sewer, or central heating.
This fall, the guardianship authorities took Vitya away and placed him in a shelter. Ruslan could sue against the decision, but then he would have to organize school preparation routines and medical check-ups of his son on his own. With no accessibility, he physically cannot visit the doctor, whose office is on the third floor of the clinic. Thus, Ruslan had to sign the consent — otherwise he could have been charged with limiting the child’s rights to education.

Gray Brick Road focuses on the relationship between a father and son who live in very difficult and limited circumstances. Ruslan’s case can only be discussed in the context of his basic rights and the appropriate level of social support. Those things have been lacking. What can my pictures say about a man who has lived 40 years in a wheelchair?

As for Ruslan’s son, Vitya, there is hope for, and indication of, some progress. Increasingly in the city of Pskov, there are new services for people with disabilities. Society is gradually learning to accept these people and, as with Rostock and the other aid organizations, we just have to keep moving in the right direction. Perhaps the changes are not so significant for each individual case, but eventually we will reach a fundamental shift. If we keep working, things will change.

With some help from volunteers, Ruslan managed to find temporary social housing. Vitya has been cleared for school and passed the medical disability check-up. However, the chief result of this support is that the family has been preserved.

Dmitry Markov is a photographer from Pskov, Russia. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

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