WHEELING ON THE METRO
You don’t really appreciate the speed, vertical slope and mineshaft-like distance of the Moscow Metro’s escalators until you’re staring down one from a wheelchair. The things cook, like George Jetson’s treadmill.
But I had to take the metro. One reason is because the disabled don't really have much of a choice. Access to government-subsidized automobiles had been cut off a few years ago when a decades-old Soviet-era law requiring the government to provide handicap-accessible cars, such as the little Oki death traps, to the disabled expired in 2005, and was never renewed. So it was off to the metro.
Alex Zaitchik acted as my nurse/guardian for my first foray out. It was relatively easy getting through the newly installed handicapped-friendly turnstile in the Belarusskaya metro station, but when we got to the escalator, we stopped and stared, genuinely worried, like a kid before his first high dive. Would we make it? Or would we tumble down?
Zaitchik had recently thrown his shoulder out playing baseball with some competitive-corporate types, so he wasn’t very confident about his ability to support the 200 lbs of me and the Nadezhda. If he was worried, then I was starting to shit bricks. One wrong move and I’d be tumbling down hundreds of feet of sharp-edged escalator steps, with Zaitchik twisting into the Nadezhda’s axles the whole way down. Pure cartoon slapstick—only with lots of live-action blood.
I’d seen how real handicapped people manage it: just before reaching the escalator, they’d swing their wheelchair around to face backwards, move closer to the escalator edge, grab ahold of the handrail treads, and let it move them back onto the escalator. This way, they use gravity to their advantage, but the disadvantage is the unpleasant experience of riding down a long, steep elevator backwards, and at a steep angle, on a faulty wheelchair.
Alex and I borrowed their technique: I turned around to face backwards, Alex hopped onto the escalator ahead of me, and grabbed my wheelchair handles, easing my transition onto the fast-moving steps. At first, Alex miscalculated the speed of the escalator, and for a spilt second, I was left myself wobbling at the very peak of the escalator with no support from behind. As I teetered over, I grabbed onto both banisters and managed to delay my spill just long enough for Alex to come bouncing up the escalator to support me. We made it, but I’m never doing that again.
To transfer trains from the circle line to a radial line was the next big obstacle, since it meant going up non-moving stairs. Zaitchik is big healthy guy, but even he had to quit after only hauling me up two stairs. There was no choice but to break the rules of this story, get off the wheelchair and roll it up the stairs myself. Already it was becoming clear why you don’t see handicapped people in the subway system.
For the most part, my presence didn’t cause any problems. Most people stared at me, and no one moved out of my way when I needed to get off the train, until I started spearing their ankles with my chair’s steel foot braces, the Nadezhda’s lances. Then the assholes got courteous and respected my special needs.
If there’s one positive thing to having Moscow’s super-malls on the outskirts of towns, it’s that all that space allowed them to be more wheelchair friendly than other parts of town. Most of these outer-ring Moscow super-malls are wheelchair accessible, making the IKEA superstore and the Mega Mall on the cutting-edge of universal access in Russia. In my interviews with Russian disabled-rights organizations, they too gave the malls credit for making life better for them. Once at the mall, I wheeled myself through the wide, smooth-tiled floors of Mega Mall towards Starbucks—and for once, the Nadezhda started to live up to its name.