From Russia, with a mission for change

Olga Kotova.
Travis Poulin / Sky-Hi News |

To Colorado residents, it is an everyday occurrence to see people with disabilities accessing amenities with ease. The United States has implemented sweeping legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act to adapt to those with special needs.

It’s something we might take for granted. But for Olga Kotova, who’s visiting Grand County this week, the US’s disability systems are a model template for what she hopes to accomplish in her home country.

Kotova was born in Moscow, Russia, in 1985. Like most children, she enjoyed playing sports and going to school. When she was around 12 years old she began to realize she had a deformation of her spine. Suddenly, she was considered disabled and doors began to close.

Russian school system

In the US, this would not hold her back from participation in many programs and opportunities, but in Russia, Kotova could not participate in physical education class, and eventually could not even go to school. Russia’s school system did not allow students with disabilities like Kotova’s to participate in class lessons. Kotova, who loved running, was devastated.

Instead of attending public school, Kotova had to be home-schooled twice a week. She had trouble getting into college (which in Russia is a preliminary education to university) because they did not accept anyone with a disability. She ended up finding a special college for people with disabilities after securing some financial help from friends and family.

Kotova said Russia’s system for people with disabilities mostly stayed the same until the Sochi Paralympics in 2014. Russia now had to assist people with disabilities because they were about to get flooded with athletes from all over the world who required adapted systems of transportation.

It was just in 2016 that Russia passed an anti-discrimination law that protects people with disabilities from being denied enrollment in schools and other programs. The Sochi Paralympics forced many positive changes, but Kotova said Russia still has a long way to go.

Instead of being discouraged and defeated by Russia’s inability to adapt to people with disabilities, Kotova took matters into her own hands and began working with programs to make Russia adapt for everyone.

Kotova said in the past year students with disabilities have gone from sitting on the bench during PE class to developing their own schedule for their own abilities and are now allowed to participate in almost all activities. Kotova said the PE teachers were surprised at the abilities of disabled students because they had never seen them participate before.

NSCD Winter Park

Kotova met Beth Fox, education and outreach director for the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD), in February 2016 in Moscow at a presentation for sports instructors for children with autism. The two hit it off and Kotova recently found herself traveling to the US for NSCD’s International Women’s Week at Winter Park Resort.

In the past two weeks, Kotova has had the opportunity to alpine ski for the first time, dog sled, ski-tour, and, most importantly, observe physical education classes with disabled students. Kotova was amazed at the skills of disabled children, as well as the level of inclusion. Kotova observed Middle Park High School’s PE Teacher Mark Birdseye during one of his classes. Kotova said she was astounded at how Birdseye interacted with the students. She said every pupil was very involved and interacting with other students like there was no ability gap.

Kotova said the first thing she will most likely do when she returns to Russia next week is give a presentation portraying success stories of some of the students she met in the US. She said showing a success story to a disabled student can often inspire them to realize their own abilities.

“I wish that any kid could go to any activity—sporting events, playgrounds—and have accessibility,” Kotova said.

“It’s not about disabilities; it’s about how the brain works. Everyone needs to be inclusive to help society understand each other and understand differences.”

Kotova is currently the sports program manager for Perspektiva, a company located in Moscow that aims to expand the horizons for people with disabilities. She was a torchbearer for the Olympics in Sochi. She has also attended the Athens and London Olympic games.

Kotova and Fox plan to stay connected and work together to bring disability accessibility to countries that need it.

If Kotova’s story wasn’t inspiring enough, the rest of her family’s stories might be.

Her sister has a mental disability, making Kotova’s push for acceptance and inclusion in Russia even more personal. Her husband is visually impaired and her father-in-law is legally blind. Kotova’s husband and father-in-law both attended special schools for the blind in Russia and have become very successful.

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