People with disabilities abandoned in Ukraine

Published by The i paper (4th April, 2022)

It is almost six weeks since Vladimir Putin unleashed hell on Ukraine. His forces have pulverised cities, shattered communities and slaughtered thousands. Sirens wail daily across the country and the economy lies wrecked. More than 10 million people have been displaced from homes. Many more have seen their lives devastated in other ways. Last week I visited a hospital in Zhytomyr, 90 miles west of Kyiv, where a doctor running the maternity unit, forced to move into the basement, said they were seeing “at least twice” as many premature births due to the stresses of war.

The democratic world looks on aghast at an unfolding horror story – and with utmost respect for Ukraine’s resistance and resilience. Many countries have thrown aside their usual entry requirements to offer sanctuary for refugees. Well into the second month of this cruel conflict, there is still shock as we hear hideous stories of people forced to spend weeks hiding in basements from Russia’s bombardment or read of families fleeing for their lives in terror.

Now consider the situation faced by the estimated 2.7m Ukrainians with disabilities. The bombs and bullets, the chaos and carnage, are hard enough to bear for any human being. But imagine if the basements offering safety from lethal shells are only accessible by stairs, the lifts stop working in power cuts and the only transport out of town is inaccessible for wheelchair users; imagine if precious carers flee, depriving people of life-enabling support; or if essential drug supplies dry up as pharmacies close and supply lines are crushed.

Think what life must be like for many autistic people or citizens with learning disabilities amid the sudden dislocations of daily life, the sirens sounding at night and the barrage of thunderous explosions.

I recently came across the tale of Volodymyr, a teenager whose condition reminds me a bit of my own daughter. He has learning disabilities, epilepsy and mobility issues due to a rare genetic condition. He relies on his family for full-time care, yet since Russian forces attacked Kyiv, they have struggled to find his vital anti-seizure medication.

This family’s travel at the best of times is complicated, risking more seizures, so evacuation is almost impossible without specialist help. “We can’t even run downstairs to the bomb shelter. We mostly hide in the corridor of our apartment, in the bathroom or the toilet,” said his mother Natalia Komarenko. “I have a daughter who is five and she’s scared but I can’t leave my son behind.”

Natalia heads a charity called “Z teplom u sertisi” (With warmth in the heart) that brings together families in Kyiv living with disabilities. There are 257 children in this group left in this capital city that feels eerily empty; some have even returned to familiar surroundings.

Yet many disabled people in Ukraine, as in other places, are often excluded from society and suffer from negative stereotypes. This is a nation still struggling to shake off its Soviet past, which has high levels of institutionalisation with an estimated 100,000 disabled people, many of them children, in care homes. Their chances of escape to somewhere safer are often slim in a war that has seen even rehabilitation centres for children attacked.

There are valiant efforts to evacuate people with disabilities. Serhii Sukhomlyn, the mayor of Zhytomyr, told me they sent families of children with learning disabilities to the Netherlands. Kyiv’s mayor Vitali Klitschko said they evacuated 200 children with disabilities and their families in the first three weeks of war and his office continues to offer relocation help.

Some disability groups complain, however, that their pleas for help developing evacuation plans in the months leading to war went unheeded. “I had a feeling that in a situation of war, we would be the first victims,” said Yuliia Sachuk, chair of Fight For Right, a Ukrainian charity assisting people with disabilities.

At the start of last month, Fight for Right begged on social media for evacuation help. The message was seen by Anna Landre, an American studying for a masters at the London School of Economics, who enlisted the help of her disability-led US group that presses for inclusion in humanitarian disasters. She expected simply to use their network of contacts to prod international organisations and major charities into helping evacuate people with disabilities. Instead, they found themselves rebuffed at every turn by these bodies that love to preach about inclusion, hearing the same pathetic excuses that they lacked the ability to assist “personnel with these needs”.

So these women with disabilities and their voluntary organisations mobilised to fill a void left by all the smug United Nations agencies and sanctimonious aid charities, whose talk of diversity turned out to be hollow when confronted with Ukraine’s catastrophe. “They all mention disability in their promotions and mouth slogans about inclusion but clearly it does not reflect reality,” said Landre.

So this 23-year-old student is spending up to 16 hours a day helping to coordinate evacuations, assisting in the extraction of more than 500 people since the start of the Russian invasion. “I have worked in this area for many years but I have never seen such unity and solidarity among the disabled community,” Sachuk told Time magazine.

On Saturday I left a hotel in central Ukraine filled with staff from these agencies, their new white 4x4s lined up along the pavement and logos displayed prominently on clothes for any cameras. Yet as Landre said, how sad that their talk of disability rights melts away when confronted by a crisis – and how dreadful that they rapidly abandon Ukrainians in their relief efforts who are among the most in need of their international help.

Once again, we see the lives of people with disabilities deemed less valuable in society, even by agencies that claim to be devoted humanitarians – and this only compounds the painful tragedy of Ukraine and suffering of its people.

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