Righteous indignation was in ready supply last week, when Russian Internet users learned about yet another story of savagery from the country's regions. This time, the manager of a cafe called “Flamingo” in Nizhny Novgorod ejected from his establishment a 27-year-old customer named Oksana, diagnosed with autism and cerebral palsy since birth. He told her that she was scaring away potential customers.
The incident gained significant media attention, in no small part because Oksana turned out to be a sister of the world-famous Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova.
Vodianova has used her celebrity to drum up support for her sister. Writing on Facebook, she described the unpleasant incident at the cafe with her sister in a post that has now been shared more than 44,000 times and “liked” more than 106,000 times. According to Vodianova, her sister spends much of her day walking in the area around her home. When her sister gets tired, her caretaker brings her to the nearest cafe. Last week, when they tried to sit down and rest, the owner demanded that they leave, telling Oksana's guardian “to cure both herself and her child before coming out into public.”
Individuals in Oksana's condition, however, cannot be persuaded to do anything by force or intimidation, and her caretaker pleaded with the cafe manager for a bit more time to coax her outside. Instead of waiting, the manager called security. When Oksana's mother and sister finally arrived, the manager threatened to call the police. When it was all said and done, both sides had filed reports with local police officers.
Natalia Vodianova points out that what happened to her sister was not an isolated incident, but the reality of life for individuals and families managing special needs.
“Let us help non-profit organizations and charity funds who are working daily on building an inclusive society in Russia—help with our desire to become this society,” Natalia Vodianova writes. The supermodel herself is the head of the Naked Heart Foundation, which has operated since 2004, trying to change the society's perception of people with disabilities. In 2011, powered by the experience of disability in her own family, Vodianova launched the “Every Child Deserves a Family” program.
Since gaining infamy as an enemy of the handicapped, the Nizhny Novgorod cafe promptly closed its doors, and its owner now faces five years in prison for “abasing human dignity.” Vodianova, meanwhile, has called for calm, asking members of the public “not to trade one kind of zero tolerance for another.”
Local police haven't let the cafe off the hook, however. Officials from Rospotrebnadzor (Russia's consumer rights and human welfare agency) recently raided Cafe “Flamingo,” imposing fines (reportedly in the amount of roughly 3 million rubles, or $45,000) for a series of code violations, including the absence of certain fire precautions and the lack of an entrance ramp accessible to the disabled.
Asked about the stiff penalty imposed on the cafe owner, Natalia Vodianova said she would prefer to see him sentenced to community service. “I would suggest replacing the fine with volunteer work in one of our youth after-school camps,” she explained. “Maybe I'm an idealist, but I think this could bring a lot of good to them.”