“Disabled people are often forgotten and left behind in war. Let’s not forget disabled people of Ukraine!”
Over the past two weeks I have shared those words together with the link to the article I wrote about the situation of disabled people in Ukraine, so many times that Facebook blocked me for spamming.
If I have spammed you: sorry, not sorry. I was trying to raise awareness because I felt like while the whole world came together to help Ukrainians fleeing war, my community was being left behind.
I am not the only one who feels this way. Tanya Herasymova, project coordinator of Fight for Right, Ukrainian NGO led by disabled people, said for Irish Mirror that the lack of support made fleeing the country almost impossible for disabled people.
Fight for Right is fighting for disabled Ukrainians
Tanya left Ukraine for Poland together with her mother who is also disabled. This is how she described their journey for Irish Mirror: “The employees of the station helped me, and I was able to get on the train… train station workers carried me down the stairs to the exit. It was horrible. I’m going with my mother. She also has a disability and uses crutches, and we arrived in by the train. We left our hometown on February 25. It was the second day of the war… The night on the train was hard. So many people were there riding, standing up.”
Being carried up or down the stairs while you are sitting (or in some cases laying) in a wheelchair is terrifying. Many able-bodied people think that offering to carry a disabled person up and down the stairs is a good solution, something they should be thanked for even. They are wrong. Being carried like that is scary and dangerous and dehumanizing even if you are just trying to get to the office or to class. Now imagine how utterly frightening it must have been for someone trying to escape war.
Tanya wouldn’t be able to get out of the country without the help of volunteers and support team from Fight for Right.
When Putin’s invasion was only a horrible possibility, Fight for Right conducted a survey among disabled Ukrainians in order to learn how to best address their needs in case of emergency.
Fight for Right then asked the Southeast ADA Center, a project of the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University to develop a resource sheet for emergency preparedness, planning and evacuation specifically tailored for the needs of disabled Ukrainians. It is accessible on their website together with other resources on the rights of disabled people during armed conflict and the guidelines on inclusion of disabled people in humanitarian action.
That happened in the beginning of February. Now Fight for Right works tirelessly 24/7 to get disabled people out of the country and into safety.
Fight for Right Chairperson Yuliia Sachuk said for Irish Mirror: “Right now, people with disabilities are the most affected group by the war in Ukraine. There are people [with disabilities] trapped, there are people [with disabilities] dying; we have been left behind.”
Fight for Right are trying to save disabled people of Ukraine, but they cannot do it alone, they need funds and volunteers: “We have been trying to help ourselves, but we need help. We need accessible evacuation efforts prioritised for people with disabilities,” Yuliia said.
In my previous article I talked about sending in the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders because they have experience with helping in conflicts and they cannot be targeted. They are already there and right now I am saying even louder: We should ask them to prioritise disabled people in their efforts!
Oh, we don’t help people with disabilities
Or maybe we should start by asking them to at least include us.
When Fight for Right was looking for organisations and people who could help them with getting disabled Ukrainians out of the country one of the organisations that answered was The Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies. It is a small US-based organisation led by disabled women. Usually, their work entails policymaking and supply deliveries after natural disasters such as earthquakes. Despite not having experience in evacuating people during an active conflict, they stepped up and are doing everything in their power to help.
This is how Anna Landre from The Partnership described their experience of reaching out to the big humanitarian organisations, in her article for Oxfam: “We expected to jump in for a few days to create connections between FFR and relevant humanitarian organizations we knew, such as the UN, Red Cross, USAID, and more – the usual suspects when it comes to situations like the crisis in Ukraine. But as we made these connections, reaching the highest heights of the “who’s who” of the humanitarian field, we were turned down every time. The typical line was that the organization lacked the ability to evacuate “personnel with those needs” – in other words, people with disabilities.”
As Anna pointed out these organisations claim to help disabled people in their promotional materials and fundraising appeals and yet when asking them for help, they got:
“Disabled people who called the main hotline for a household-name medical humanitarian agency being told “Oh, we don’t help people with disabilities.”
A lack of evacuation vehicles outfitted to wheelchair-users and people who are bed-bound,
Refugee registration centers, shelters, and buses that are not wheelchair accessible,
Ukrainian hospitals, orphanages, and institutions housing children and adults with disabilities being abandoned.”
15% of the world’s population are disabled. This is not a small number. Then why does the world act as if we don’t exist? Why are we treated as an acceptable collateral damage and left for dead in a humanitarian crisis? We aren’t an acceptable collateral damage, we are humans, our lives matter and are worth saving.
You don’t need to be disabled to help
Over the last two weeks I have watched the start of numerous initiatives focused on helping disabled Ukrainians coming to Slovakia. Many of them are led by disabled people whose knowledge and experiences are going to be invaluable in meeting the needs of disabled Ukrainians.
According to Tanya: “….we (Fight for Right) are looking for organisations in Moldova, Slovakia, Romania, Poland etc. to help people, and there are volunteers trying to place people, to help with accommodation, with medical care etc.”
In Poland Fundacija SMA was able to help 50 families with SMA from Ukraine to get to safety.
Slovak organisation OMD led by and for people with neuromuscular diseases is currently in contact with similar organisations in Ukraine and they are prepared to help as well.
ANEPS, an association of deaf people in Slovakia, is providing accessible information for Ukrainians that are deaf or hard of hearing.
AXIS International Rehabilitation Center based in Slovakia first offered to provide housing and therapies for disabled Ukrainians last Sunday and a week later they welcomed first families.
Parents of disabled children are also offering to share their accessible homes with disabled Ukrainians.
As you can probably guess, I am extremely proud of both my community and my country right now, but you don’t have to be disabled or from Slovakia to be able to help.
If you decide to donate to Fight for Right, you can rest assured that every penny will be spent on getting disabled people that are still in Ukraine to safety. You can donate HERE.
Life with disability is worth living
Before Putin attacked Ukraine, Fight for Right worked to ensure that the rights of disabled people in Ukraine are being upheld. They were trying to empower disabled community in Ukraine “to create a powerful human rights movement”, worked on changing discriminatory legislation, educate about inclusivity and human rights at schools, working to make public spaces and websites accessible and provided trainings for employers and HR managers to ensure that disabled people aren’t discriminated when seeking employment or at work.
Why am I mentioning all of this, now? Because I want to remind you that disabled people are indeed people. Our lives are worth saving but they are also worth living.
Disabled Ukrainians deserve to have the same chance at a new life as their able-bodied countrymen and for that they would need access to education, work, housing, healthcare, mobility aids, assistive technology, and personal assistance, and we need to provide it for them.