Russian Model, Actress Natalia Vodianova Slams Cafe for Kicking out Disabled Sister

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Natalia Vodianova

The incident and the reaction from the star, who appeared in 'Clash of the Titans,' spark a social media debate about the treatment of people with disabilities in the country.

Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova has sparked a social media debate about her home country's treatment of people with disabilities after her autistic sister was kicked out of a coffee shop.

Vodianova was appalled after her younger sister Oksana Vodianova, 27, who suffers from autism and cerebral palsy, was told to leave a cafe in Nizny Novgorod by the manager despite pleas from other customers to leave her alone. 

Oksana, who was there with her caretaker, was told she was "scaring off other clients." Vodianova's mother, Larisa Kusakina, who arrived after being called, was arrested by police for disorderly conduct after complaining to the owner. She was told: "Go get treatment and get your kid treated, too — and only then show up in a public place," the model said on Facebook.

"When they took my mother to the local [police] station, they recognized her and were surprised; they said that they would not deal with the matter and that she should be taken to the central [police] station," Vodianova wrote, according to the Moscow Times. Kusakina subsequently filed a complaint against the owner of the cafe.

"It pains me that this happened to my mother, Oksana and her carer," Vodianova wrote. "The owner should have been taken to the station for insulting people and discrimination; why did they take my mother?"

The incident highlighted attitudes towards disability in Russia that have barely changed since Soviet times, when disabled people were routinely isolated from society in state care facilities. The incident has sparked a wave of social media protests urging Russians to recognize the problem.

Vodianova, who set up her charity Naked Heart in 2004 to care for sick children, said publicity around the incident had been phenomenal. In a Facebook comment posted ahead of a webinar Monday, organized by the Naked Heart Foundation, she wrote: "Something quite incredible and amazing happened over the past [few] days. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, thousands of bloggers, journalists and leading politicians, are all talking and drawing attention to the problems faced by people with disabilities in Russia." She urged readers to "help people with special needs and their families be happy" and to support charities working with the disabled.

The comments by Vodianova, who has appeared in several Hollywood movies, including Clash of the Titans, were picked up by members of Russia's filmmaking community who reposted details of the webinar.

The incident has drawn attention from the highest levels of the Russian government, with Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of Russia's upper legislative body, the Federation Council, saying that authorities needed to remember laws stipulating "wheelchair ramps, use of special symbols and other measures to help disabled people use the urban infrastructure is only part of the effort required."

Campaigners say Russian attitudes have more to do with ignorance than ill will. "Many problems derive from a lack of knowledge, not from the evil nature of some people," Anna Mikhailenko, of disabilities campaign group Perspektiva, told The Moscow Times.