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 In Accessibility, Cool Stuff, Moscow, Travel

by Josh Safdie | Principal

The sixth Paralympic Games, held in the Netherlands in June of 1980, were originally intended by the International Olympic and Paralympic Committees to be held concurrently with the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in the Moscow.  The Soviet organizing committee, however, declined to host the Games, with one official infamously explaining, “There are no invalids in the U.S.S.R.”   Fast forward 34 years to the 2014 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, and we can follow the slow and difficult arc of social inclusion for people with disabilities in Russia.

The progress, or lack thereof, in this arena in the US and Russia since the end of the Cold War offers a study in marked contrasts – and nowhere is this truer than in the accessibility of the built environment.  The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1991 set in motion 25+ years of progress here in the US, while today the Moscow subway system remains entirely inaccessible and the “SNIP” (a federal technical standard with accessibility requirements parallel to those found in the ADA) was enacted only in 2003.

I have had the good fortune to travel to Moscow on several occasions over the past four years to run educational programs for architecture students, developed in collaboration with the Russian NGO Perspektiva.  These programs bring together young designers and people with disabilities, or “user/experts,” from around the country for anywhere from three to seven days.  The students learn first-hand from the user/experts what daily life in the city is like for them, walking together through the streets and squares and discussing their experiences in real time.

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Then, through a speculative process of design, they envision a future Moscow that is accessible to people of all ages and abilities. The students and user/experts work together to turn the barriers of the city into the seeds of innovation, articulating a shared vision of inclusion through vivid illustrations of a Moscow that could be.  By way of this work, they come to understand how cultural, political, and physical barriers can stand as an impediment to social progress – and how we as architects must approach our own work in order to break down these barriers.

Teaching and working in foreign settings has always been compelling to me.  I believe that somehow the mild discomfort of not being able to speak a language, or even read a train schedule, opens one up to unexpected discoveries.   For my students in Moscow, I think something similar may be true when working with a foreign instructor.

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As a child of the 1980s, I was taught that the Russian people were hard, closed-minded, and authoritarian, with little interest in equality or justice.  The young people with whom I have worked in Moscow, however, have proven to be just the opposite.  This post-Soviet generation has received me with open minds and open hearts, and they have embraced the content of my teaching in the same way.  Despite the physical and attitudinal barriers that are still so pervasive in their country, these students seem truly to relish in the opportunity to learn and implement principles of inclusive and Universal design as they apply to the built environment.  As long as their enthusiasm continues, I hope to keep returning to Russia, with love.