Ability for Disability

The Facts

In the Soviet Union people with disabilities were marginalised and discriminated against, a practice which still exists in Belarus today. Even though one in every twenty people in Belarus has a disability, this fact has been historically ignored by society and politicians – there is hardly any infrastructure in the country for people with disabilities to use transport easily or be able to work. This means that around nine out of ten disabled people are forced to stay at home and live on the margins of society. In most countries, even well developed wealthy democracies, provision and care for people with disabilities remains inadequate, but in Belarus this has been exacerbated by a lack of legislation. The Belarusian government takes half measures to make it look as if policy-makers are trying to support disabled people. Twenty years ago, the regime announced that public transport would be free for everyone with a disability. The only problem was that disabled people could not board such transport due to access issues. It was an empty gesture. Today some buses and other forms of public transport have ramps, but reports suggest that they are difficult to use and don’t meet health and safety standards. Belarus finally ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on 15 June 2017, but little has changed in the intervening years and whilst NGOs are having more success at changing infrastructures, the government remains slow to follow through on its own promises.

The Campaign

Ability for Disability has multiple strands: public actions, public discussions, the stage production, House#5, and its accompanying documentary.

The campaign was co-conceived and delivered as a collaboration between a group of students with disabilities and the students of Fortinbras. BFT’s unwavering action and attention in this area contributed to the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Belarus for the period from 2017 to 2025.

Public Actions & Discussions

Beginning in December 2015 and running until June 2017 when Belarus finally ratified its national convention for the protection of people with disabilities, numerous public actions took place across Minsk – in cafes, cinemas, back streets and on the main avenue next to Lukashenko’s presidential residence. The aim was to make visible the real physical challenges that people with disabilities in Belarus face when trying to go about their everyday lives through a series of artistic provocations.

The Boulders and Obstacles provocation showed just how hard it was for people with disabilities to cross roads or use the very steep ramps down into the subway stations. The group of students with disabilities and the students of Fortinbras blocked Winners Avenue, just down from Lukashenko’s presidential residence, and stopped traffic in order to demonstrate how difficult it was for someone in a wheelchair to get themselves onto and off a pedestrian crossing without ramps down from the pavements. Within minutes the police arrived and took the details of all of the participants.

Another provocation – supported by “The Castle”, a popular fashion store – placed mannequins in wheelchairs to model clothes, to encourage the public to think about how fashion affects people with disabilities. The accompanying action took place in a shopping mall, where eight participants with disabilities together with Fortinbras students congregated in wheelchairs. The security forces swiftly descended, confused at the sight of a group of people in wheelchairs – something that never happens in Belarus.

Fortinbras students used barricade tape to wrap a cinema like a crime scene to highlight the fact that people with a hearing impairment should be able to go to the movies like everyone else. The group distributed leaflets for the campaign before being ordered to stop by security guards. Less than a year later, the cinema installed special equipment meaning that it could, for the first time, offer its hearing impaired audiences sign language interpretation.

Students also wrapped themselves in cling film whilst seated in wheelchairs to illuminate  the comprehensive restrictions on people with disabilities in Belarus. Again, the action was shut down by the police. And yet, within months, lifts and ramps began to be installed in some subway stations in Minsk.

The Blind and Braille provocation saw students don masks before trying to make their way around the city in order to demonstrate how unsafe it is for blind and partially sighted people to move around safely in Minsk.

Misha, a student wearing a sign which said They don’t care if we are on fire set fire to his own hands in Liberty Square on the day of the Christmas Parade to show the very real challenges of access to the emergency services for people with disabilities, especially those with a hearing impairment. The Square was filled with families and groups of friends that day and so the provocation immediately attracted a lot of attention, with Misha making a statement to TV news cameras about his action. This resulted in a chase by KGB forces and Misha was arrested a few days later, released with a fine but expelled from his arts academy.

A photography project by Darya Andreyanova and Nikolai Kuprich projected onto buildings in the artistic quarter of Minsk also highlighted the sexuality and sex lives of the disabled, in a further effort to break down barriers. The photography project entitled We Also Want to Have Sex was also featured at Svaboda.org. Andreyanova, a model and Fortinbras student said, “for me, the most important thing is to say that a person with a disability is just a person, and a disability is not just about ramps.”

The We Just Want to Pee provocation brought together twenty students in wheelchairs to highlight the inaccessibility of public toilets in Minsk for people with disabilities. Riot police arrived but were uncertain about how to respond and so the action continued. Within a year, fully accessible toilets began to be introduced across the city.

Returning to the annual Christmas Parade in 2015, a group of students with disabilities and the students of Fortinbras dressed up as Santa Claus, each one in a wheelchair, and tried to join the public parade. Even though prior permission for the action had been granted, riot police told the students that they were not allowed to join the festivities because of their connection to Belarus Free Theatre. Since 2016, people with disabilities have been allowed to participate in the annual Christmas parade; this decision has had a far-reaching impact on children and families across the city.

#DrawingIsNotEnough highlighted the lack of adequate signage for those with a visual impairment – at metro stations, in shops, cafes and at traffic lights – in and around Minsk.

House#5 - the play and the documentary

In 2015, Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) and Fortinbras created the play House#5 alongside a documentary of the same name. House#5 was researched and devised by Fortinbras students together with non-professional actors with disabilities. The resulting play explores sexuality, independence, ignorance and discrimination issues around disability, challenging societal taboos which exist in both Belarusian culture and that of other western societies. It brought the real-life experiences and frustrations of disabled people centre-stage conveying the restraints that society imposes upon them. Each of the fifteen scenes was devised by one of the students drawing on their own stories, fears, prejudices and informed by in-depth research interviews with disabled people. The performance saw wheelchairs used as an extension of the human body as the performers switched between disabled and non-disabled roles to confound and challenge the audience’s assumptions about disability. The production offered a wealth of refreshingly candid perspectives on disability, aiming to transform perceptions and build better understanding.

Scenes from the documentary formed part of the video design of the play. The documentary, made by two Fortinbras students, Daria Andreyanava and Nikolai Kuprich, featured a young couple, Yulia and Andrei, both of whom have a history of mental and physical health problems and experience of being institutionalised. Living in squalid surroundings, writing poetry and playing the piano, they tell their story with a mix of frankness, humour and emotional insight.