This photo essay was created by Sheena Brevig, a student in the Program for Narrative and Documentary Practice at Tufts University, which took 11 students to St. Petersburg, Russia to explore the country up-close. The stories and photographs they brought home focused on the cultural, the social, and the sense of place. The workshop was led by award-winning photographer Samuel James.

Professional athlete. Wife. Mother. Graphic designer. When Julia was growing up, her wheelchair sat at home and she walked everywhere, with just a slight limp caused by the difference in her leg length. But everything changed when she was 23. Julia and her father were in a car crash that landed her in surgery. The doctors assumed she couldn’t walk, and therefore didn’t tend to her legs properly, causing her to lose, permanently, the ability to walk.

Julia has osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), sometimes referred to as “brittle bone disease.” Individuals with OI are born with a defect in one or more types of connective tissue that is particularly important in bone structure and stability. When asked how the surgical error affected her, she shrugs and simply replies, “It didn’t really. I had friends, and a boyfriend, and all of my activities. I didn’t have time to be depressed!”

Her parents didn’t coddle Julia and pushed her to be independent. They raised her to have a positive outlook, and she maintains this today, shrugging off adversity, staying busy, and laughing daily. Being disabled in Russia is often a struggle, both in contending with discrimination and in daily living, because accommodations for those with disabilities are few. Julia has overcome many of these obstacles in her life, including doctors actively discouraging her from giving birth to her son.

The second best para-rower in all of Russia, Julia began when a coach spotted her agility in maneuvering her wheelchair through a supermarket and asked if she wanted to try rowing.  Many medals from national and international competitions later, Julia explains that rowing is essential to her life. It keeps her strong and healthy, allowing her muscles to function as a protective cushion for her weak bones.  She looks forward to many more years as a professional rower. She laughingly predicts, “This year, I’m getting the gold!”