Russian children fly free from challenges of cerebral palsy

Saint Petersburg (AFP) –


Clad in a green jumpsuit and helmet, Maryan Dolik walks with hesitation as he enters the glass compartment of an indoor skydiving simulator.

Within seconds he is swept up by a powerful gust of air, forgetting the physical limitations caused by his cerebral palsy.

Although the 13-year-old finds it difficult to walk down a set of stairs, inside the vertical wind tunnel he has learnt to fly and has already reaped the benefits of this unusual therapy.

"I've started walking better, become stronger and have better endurance," the slim blond boy tells AFP with a smile.

"I want to achieve a lot, to start doing everything on my own without anyone's help," Dolik says, adding that in the future he wants to become an indoor skydiving instructor.

Dolik was selected to participate in Russia's "Fly with Me" project that helps children with cerebral palsy improve their physical capabilities.

Under the guidance of his coach, Dolik trains once a week at a centre in Russia's second city Saint Petersburg. His mother Irina Dolik says that after three months of lessons his "range of movement is increasing."

"He feels more coordinated," she says.

While the use of flying simulators for therapy is already widespread in Europe and the United States, in Russia -- a country that lags behind others in its support for the disabled community -- the practice is still gaining momentum.

Physician Valida Isanova believes that the traditional methods used in Russia to treat children with cerebral palsy, such as massages, are becoming outdated.

She says that the simulator flights help work joints and muscles that are not used in everyday life, though she adds that the method still needs to be studied to give the project "scientific basis".

- 'The sky is open' -

According to official figures, around 85,000 children in Russia suffer from cerebral palsy and few families can afford a session in the freefall simulator that can cost nearly 30,000 rubles ($400) an hour.

So far 120 children between the age of five and 14 have been selected to join the "Fly with Me" state-funded initiative that is available in a handful of Russian cities.

Yekaterina Inozemtseva, who runs the project, is herself the mother of a girl with cerebral palsy. In December last year, she appealed directly to President Vladimir Putin for state support for the project.

She hopes that the programme, which includes a weekly six-minute flying session and other physical exercises, will become accessible to more people.

"We want this form of physical rehabilitation to be included in programmes on a federal level so that it is available for free to every child with cerebral palsy in every region," Inozemtseva tells AFP.

In April, Dolik and seven other children with cerebral palsy took part in an indoor parachuting championship in Moscow.

The vice-president of the Russian Federation of Parachuting, Denis Sviridov, said this was the first time disabled children had joined the competition.

"The children get the chance to develop as athletes and enter the world of parachute sport," says Dolik's coach Ruslan Savitsky.

"The sky is open for them."