Tatyana McFadden, a Special Olympics athlete and top medal winner who was adopted as a child from Russia, on Thursday added her voice to growing US protests against a Russian ban on adoptions by US families.

Born with a congenital spinal bifida defect that paralyzed her lower body and that was neglected for 21 days after birth — until it was too late to do a major surgical correction — Tatyana says she would not have lived past age 10 had she stayed in Russia.

“If I hadn’t been adopted, I don’t know where I would be,” she told CNN. “If this law is passed, I can’t describe how many lives would be ruined.” Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated on Thursday he would sign the proposed ban, which is intended to retaliate against the United States for its sanctions on Russian officials suspected of involvement in human rights violations.

Protests against the law have been lodged by Russian human rights advocates, by US adoption advocates and even by the United Nations’ Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which on Wednesday called on Russia to improve its child welfare system and allow the children’s best interest to determine policy, which should include inter-country adoptions.

Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, Pavel Astakhov, however has indicated that the government will even prevent the 46 adoptions by US citizens already approved by Russia’s legal system and in the final stages of the adoption process. For Patrick and Jan Griffin of Oklahoma, this would be “heartbreaking.” “We’ve already started preparing our home... our emotional state... and our children for the change that is to occur,” Patrick Griffin told ABC news.

Brian Franklin, chairman of the board of the Joint Council on International Children Services in Alexandria, Virginia, said a ban would affect 1,000 US families currently in some stage of the process of adopting a Russian child.

“Now is the time for Putin to demonstrate leadership and put aside whatever remnants of the cold war and politics remain and really become a true hero for the children of Russia,” Franklin told DPA.

The US State Department said on Wednesday that it was trying to convince Russian officials that the law “will needlessly remove the opportunity for hundreds of Russian orphans to join loving families each year.” Some 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by American parents in the past two decades. Russian officials have bitterly criticized the deaths of 19 of them in accidents or due to neglect. There are an estimated 650,000 Russian children in need of families. Many of the 100,000 orphans in orphanages face poor care and education.

Alexander D’Jamoos, one of the US adoptees, described in an online petition earlier this month how he grew up in a Russian orphanage filled with children abandoned by their parents because of their disabilities. Born with deformed hands and legs, he lived in an institution with no heating in harsh winters, lack of water in the summer, no handicap accessible equipment and “worst of all, lack of love and care.” “I expected a gloomy future in a state-run nursing home full of people rejected by Russian society merely because of their physical conditions,” he wrote.

His adoption journey took him to Dallas, Texas, at age 15, where his parents saw to it that his legs were amputated and properly fitted with prosthesis so he could walk. He has learned to ski, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and became a top academic student.

Tatyana McFadden’s case is another illustration of the benefits of US adoptions of handicapped and orphaned Russian children.

She was discovered in 1994 by Debbie McFadden, who was visiting orphanages in Russia as part of her work as commissioner of disabilities for the US Health Department, according to the athlete’s personal website. The orphanage was so poor there were not even crayons for the children or a wheelchair for Tatyana.

At age 6, Tatyana was walking on her arms to get around in the orphanage. McFadden “immediately felt a connection” with her and pursued adoption, Tatyana’s biography says.

In the US, McFadden got Tatyana into a wheelchair and enrolled her in local youth sports groups. A year after her arrival in the US, she joined the Bennet Blazers, a Baltimore, Maryland-area wheelchair sports organization. Her favourite sport became wheelchair racing.

By age 15, in 2004, she was the youngest member of the US track and field team at the Athens Paralympic Games, where she won silver in the 100 metres and bronze in the 200 metres. At another international competition in 2006, she won gold in the 100 metres and set a world record to boot.

She had similarly spectacular performances in Beijing in 2008.

In her interview with CNN, Tatyana said that children need a home, and said she was sad that “right now the children are being used.” “This isn’t fair,” she said. “I’m here to speak for those who can’t speak.”

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