A participant is helped into the venue of the "Beauty without limits" beauty contest for women confined to wheelchairs in Vladivostok. (Yuri Maltsev/Reuters)
MOSCOW — Maria Gendeleva is just 25, but she has already spent more than a decade in a wheelchair.
Since losing the use of her legs in a car crash, life has been an uphill battle for the young Russian — a battle she appears determined to win.
Today, Gendeleva has a full-time job, drives her own car, and enjoys an active social life.
In a country like Russia, where inadequate infrastructure and a general lack of awareness mean people with disabilities are all but cut off from society, this makes her the exception rather than the rule.
But Gendeleva, an upbeat Muscovite with flowing blonde hair, says her daily life in a wheelchair is nonetheless strewn with hurdles -- from steep curbs to inaccessible public buildings.
"I'm already so used to it constantly happening that I don't even notice it. I just accept it and move on," she says. "For me, it is more surprising when a whole day goes by without these obstacles and barriers."
Russia has taken important steps to improve accessibility for the disabled, including ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in May 2012 and approving the nationwide Accessible Environment program several months later.
In March 2014, it will host the Paralympic Games in Sochi.
And the country has come a long way since it last hosted the Olympic Games in 1980. At that time, Soviet authorities refused to let the Paralympics take place in Moscow on the grounds that there were "no disabled people" in the Soviet Union.
Despite these improvements, however, Russia's 13 million disabled people are still mostly left to fend for themselves.
In a report last month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized the lack of adapted infrastructure and services for the disabled in Russia.
In the 108-page report titled "Barriers Everywhere," the group said many people in wheelchairs were essentially trapped at home because their apartment buildings had no ramps or lifts.
It found that many existing ramps were too steep to use and that their access was often blocked by lampposts, vendors' kiosks, or parked cars.
Public transport also poses a major challenge, sometimes even a danger, for people with disabilities.
A blind man interviewed for the report said he had fallen three times from metro train platforms because the edges had no tactile markers. He broke his hand in one of the falls.
Special buses accessible for wheelchairs are few and far between, and according to Human Rights Watch, drivers frequently refuse to let wheelchairs on board for fear that other passengers will complain because of the delay.
Taxis for people in wheelchairs operate in Russia, but they are costly and need to be booked several days in advance.
"People who want to have an active social life, who want to work, who want to socialize, people who simply want to be like everyone else are deprived of the opportunity to do so," says Tatyana Lokshina of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office.
According to Human Rights Watch, disabled people in Russia routinely face employer discrimination, limited education opportunities, and substandard health care. Some 80 percent of disabled people are unemployed.
Rights advocates say Russia must do more to integrate disabled people into society.
"It's important not just to make jobs available for disabled people -- specially created jobs as is usually the case in Russia -- but also to enable the disabled to work with able-bodied people," Lokshina says. "It's important not just to make education available for children with disabilities, but such children should be able to study in normal schools, together with other children. There should be no division between 'us' and 'them.'"
Gendeleva has had to work hard to achieve her relative autonomy.
She successfully lobbied to have local authorities install a special stair lift in the building in which she shares a flat with her mother.
After struggling with Russia's public transport for several years, she eventually decided to save up for her own car.
Only one school in Moscow teaches disabled people to drive, and Gendeleva had to wait several months before being accepted.
She then purchased a vehicle and customized it with hand-operated gears at her own expense.
After holding several jobs since her accident, including teaching art to elderly people, she started working for the Moscow-based disability-rights group Perspektiva six years ago.
She now travels on a regular basis, including on international flights, both for work and pleasure.
But not all disabled people have Gendeleva's resilience.
With most outings turning into logistical nightmares, many choose not to leave the safety of their homes.
"I know a lot of people who don't want to ask for assistance," Gendeleva says. "Every setback makes them suffer; they can't get over it and worry deeply about their situation."
Gendeleva and other disability-rights activists hope the upcoming Sochi Paralympics will help draw attention to the plight of Russia's disabled.
Tickets for the games went on sale last week.
But despite their comparatively low price and the strong showing of Russia's Paralympic team in the 2012 London Games, officials themselves are warning that this year's event could generate only limited interest among Russians.
The head of the Russian Paralympic Committee, Mikhail Terentyev, said there were "significant concerns" that the competition would not attract enough spectators to fill Sochi's vast new stadiums.