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Farm fights stigma in Russia for people with learning disabilities

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Aleksino (Russie) (AFP)

On a warm sunny day, 37-year-old Vika walked through a farmyard carrying a compost bin, saying to AFP with pride: "This is my job."

She's one of 18 Russians with learning disabilities to live and work on the Svetlana farm which has a dairy and bakery where residents do daily chores and therapy.

It's a rare example in Russia of people with special needs being integrated into the local community, as most remain hidden from view in outdated state institutions left over from Soviet times.

The farm opened more than 25 years ago in a village, 130 kilometres (80 miles) from Russia's second city, Saint Petersburg.

It is part of an international residential communities movement founded by an Austrian paediatrician in 1939.

The Camphill Movement provides educational and employment support for adults with learning disabilities and other special needs around the world.

At Svetlana, residents with various types of learning disabilities including Down syndrome lead an outdoorsy life on the farm, with help from five teachers and three volunteers.

In sharp contrast to conditions in state-run homes, they live together in spacious houses, where they have separate bedrooms and share living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens.

- 'Integrate into ordinary life' -

Most Svetlana residents are sent to live on the farm for long periods by their families or guardians and contribute towards their costs which are mostly met by charity and state donations.

For Vika, the farm has been home for the last 19 years during which time she has "changed a lot", director Yelena Aleneva, 51, said.

"She has become an independent person," she told AFP.

"The goal of the farm is to integrate the residents into ordinary life as much as possible," she added.

Vika and her fellow farm hands work in the morning before moving on to their hobbies.

On the day AFP visited, art therapy teacher Irina Andreyeva was rehearsing a play with them based on the French classic "The Little Prince" that included dance, music and their drawings.

Watching Natasha, a young girl with Down syndrome, dance in the show, Andreyeva said: "They are very talented, each in their own way."

- Soviet-era isolation -

According to official figures, 160,000 people with learning difficulties still live in state institutions in Russia that have a dire reputation.

Under communism, authorities encouraged isolating people with learning disabilities, who were considered unfit for work, to such places.

Living conditions in the facilities sharply deteriorated during the economic crisis following the fall of the USSR in 1990.

Despite significant improvements since then, they continue to be a matter of concern for human rights activists.

In 2015, a fire killed 23 mostly elderly patients at a residential home in southwest Russia. Two years earlier, two other fires in the same type of institution killed almost 80 people.

Standard state residential centres have hundreds of people crammed together in dormitories, often under-supervised and with limited opportunities to train for employment, according to campaigners for reforms and rights groups.

"For a child with learning disabilities, it is a difficult scenario," Anna Klepikova, an anthropologist at Saint Petersburg's European University, told AFP.

"In Russia, there is practically no chance of socialisation after someone reaches 18 years of age," she said.

She noted however "real trends towards Russian society becoming more humane" towards those with learning disabilities.

Programmes to help people integrate are appearing, she said.

"But these only cater for the needs of a few dozen people."

- Reforms? -

Reform proposals have been drawn up for Russia's more than 500 state institutions for people with learning disabilities but have so far not led to concrete measures.

They aim to reduce the number of old-style state homes and develop therapies like those provided by the Svetlana community.

"The government is ready to work on this with us, but a change in legislation is needed," Pravmir website quoted Anna Bitova, head of an educational NGO for children with learning disabilities and a government committee member on social policy, as saying.

Russian law, she said, currently does not allow the state to provide individually tailored support for people with learning disabilities outside traditional residential facilities.

"Without federal financing to solve this problem, the regions will not do anything," the website, which writes about social problems, rights issues and religious matters, quoted her as saying.

Svetlana's director said that staff there were on hand to help authorities create new programmes.

Currently though, she added, "no one is interested in our 20 years of experience."

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