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Invisible but exist: Ukrainian people with disabilities struggle not to be marginalized

Photo: Golos.UA. The Ukrainian soldiers, participants of the war in the Donbas on parade in honor of Independence Day 2014
Invisible but exist: Ukrainian people with disabilities struggle not to be marginalized
Article by: Kostiantyn Yanchenko
The successful performance of the Ukrainian team in 2016 Summer Paralympics raised not only sports but human rights issues. On 11 September 2016, when Ukraine for a short time beatthe UK in the overall rankings, social activist Kateryna Avramchuk posted an opinion which spread like wildfire the Ukrainian Facebook segment.

“Ukraine has already won 37 medals in Paralympics, 12 of them are gold… We have more medals than wheelchair ramps in an average Ukrainian town,”Kateryna wrote, and over a thousand of Facebook users supported this thought.  

Because most Ukrainian cities are not disability-friendly, making it nearly impossible for people with health conditions to appear outside, many foreigners mistakenly consider Ukraine a nation without disabled people.

Unfortunately, this is not true. Remaining invisible to some extent, people with disabilities are still part of the Ukrainian society, and the recent Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro makes sense to reflect on their condition once again.      

According to official data, there are 2.6 millions of people with disabilities in Ukraine – around 6% of the whole population. Although it is lower than the average EU index, randing between 6 and 20%, experts claim Ukrainian statistics do not reflect the real situation in the country due to the “lack of ongoing monitoring and imperfect data collection system.”

People with disabilities participate in a peace march in Kyiv, September, 2014. Photo: Ukrainian Foto.

The situation with the rights of people with disabilities also deteriorates because of the warfare in Donbas, which was a region with the highest percent of people with disabilities in Ukraine even before the invasion of Russia.

Starting with how to… call people with disabilities

The legal base for protection of people with disabilities in Ukraine is provided by the UNConvention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is interesting that being ratified since 2009, the Convention was translated correctly only this year. Before July 2016, the document was called “Convention on the Rights of Invalids” which is abusively for people with disabilities.

This case shows why the situation of persons with disabilities is improving so slowly, experts state. Not only is there lack of political will from the government’s side or a poor attitude of society towards people with disabilities, but also a clear misunderstanding of the problems such people face.      

“The information campaign before the Convention’s ratification took three years. We were collecting signatures and writing petitions to draw the attention of society and the authorities to disability issues in Ukraine,”says the Head of International Department of the Coalition of Organizations of People with Disabilities (UCOPD) Larysa Baida.

As for now, the Convention is a part of the Ukrainian legislation, so it gives an opportunity to strengthen the legal protection of people in the areas of inclusive education, the accessibility of architecture, transportation, medicine, and information. However, the first state report to the UN Committee, held in September 2015 in Geneva, showed that Ukrainian government can hardly handle disability issues alone. 

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Members of the Ukrainian delegation at the presentation of an alternative report on the Convention. Photo: UCOPD

“As representatives of UCOPD, we started to work on an alternative report on implementing the convention. And it is a great honour that all our remarks were taken into account by UN committee in their comments about official report. We aimed to present our own data on a par with the information of state, and, as we suspected, there were many discrepancies in our reports,”says Ms. Baida.

The discrepancies were related to assessing the mobility level of people with disabilities, their access to the right to education and rehabilitation, availability of advocacy in the field of disability.

“This differences occur because none of our state programs are monitored properly. If, however, the monitoring takes place, the results are not published. Such an opaque policy results in misunderstandings, especially when it comes to financial accounting,” Ms. Baida explains.  

At the same time, she underlines there are more positive signs at the highest level now if compared with the former authorities: “The intentions declared by the present governance are certainly a big step forward.”

Why using wheelchair ramps in Ukraine is too dangerous

Another popular Facebook post also perfectly symbolizes one of the most common challenges people with disabilities face in the former Soviet countries. In the video below a professional stuntman tries to use the wheelchair ramps in one of the Russian cities, and it turns out to be traumatic and dangerous even for him.

Human rights activist and analyst of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union Bohdan Moisa (blind) is sure that the situation with ramp functionality in Ukraine is not better.

“It is a vicious circle. People who are building ramps at an angle of 45 degrees do not see people with disabilities and do not understand their problems, while people in wheelchairs do not go out as they can’t use such ramps. It seems like the majority of changes are made just for show,” Mr. Moisa says.

Although the lack of infrastructure for people with disabilities is often associated with poor funding, experts agree that a set of effective measures that would make Ukrainian cities more disability friendly does not require large investments.

Mr. Moisa argues that resources are one of the reasons, but not the main one. The much bigger problem, he points, is a failure to comply with government building regulations during the construction of new facilities or items of transport.  

“For example, from 1 January 2013, all public transport manufactured or imported in Ukraine must include certain features: be accessible for people with disorders of the musculoskeletal system, have a system of internal and external alarm for people with visual impairments, etc. But our new vehicles does not meet these standards despite the fact that money is provided, so it is not a financial matter,” Mr Moisa claims.  

Women with disabilities in Ukraine

World-famous Ukrainian model Oleksandra Kutas in a wheelchair. Photo:

This year Ukraine has sent a gender-balanced team to the Paralympics for the first time. But women with disabilities in Ukraine have a hard time avoiding discrimination outside Paraolympic sport.

In the majority of Ukrainian cities, women with disabilities cannot have a gynaecological examination, because there is no needed equipment at hospitals. In result, a high percent of women experience reproductive system diseases. Those who dare to start a family are often afraid to ask for financial support since social services may treat this as an inability to raise a child and take it to an orphanage.

Nelia Kovaliuk (in a wheelchair) is from Zhytomyr. She started as a social activist and, defying all stereotypes, ended up as a member of the Executive Committee of the Zhytomyr City Council. She says her example is an exception from the rule, as it is extremely difficult for the woman with disabilities to compete with men and women without disabilities in Ukraine.

“As long as I voluntarily help people with difficulties like mine, society encourages this. But if I aim for a leadership position, people start hesitating. For some reasons they think I can not handle it because I am a woman in a wheelchair,” Ms. Kovaliuk says.                

Becoming a deputy of the City Council of the previous convocation, she launched two projects that are still running.

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Nelia Kovaliuk at the session of Zhytomyr City Council. Photo: UCOPD

The first one is a social taxi that particular categories of people with disabilities can сall five times a month free of charge. The initiative is financed by the City Council and is really demanded. After observing the project, Ms. Kovaliuk came to the conclusion that some part of money should be paid by people with disabilities anyway.

“I noticed that some people abused this service. Some of them сall a cab when they really need it, but some use a free taxi just because. A believe that a small token contribution will improve the situation,” she says.

Another project concerned the purchase of three specialized gynecological chairs for local hospitals. Manufactured in the Czech Republic, the chairs are said to be unique for Ukraine and useful not only for women with disabilities, as they allow identifying cancer at the early stages.

However, the price of the equipment (around 25,000 EUR each) caused a heavy public outcry. Local media repeatedly questioned the relevance of such an expensive purchase for the city budget money and called the chairs “golden.”

Despite the criticism, Nelia Kovaliuk believes that buying such equipment was the right decision. “Journalists wrote that one could buy a two-room flat for this money. But I think this comparison is inappropriate. Our people do need these chairs, and the price is quite justified.”      

Related: Grassroot efforts attempt to budge Ukraine’s Soviet attitude to disability

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