Disabled people in Ukraine at risk of being abandoned and forgotten

Those who cannot flee are at risk of being abandoned in institutions, at home and if they are separated from family members during the chaos, they will have to wait where they are in hopes of being found or helped by someone.

Picture: Aris Messinis/AFP

JOHANNESBURG - As the war rages on between the Ukraine and Russia one wonders, as in any other war or conflict, what will happen to the people living with disabilities during this time?

According to the European Disability Forum, there are 2.7 million persons with disabilities registered in Ukraine.

Those who cannot flee are at risk of being abandoned in institutions, at home and if they are separated from family members during the chaos, they will have to wait where they are in hopes of being found or helped by someone.

Those living in institutions are already cut off from their communities and risk being abandoned and forgotten.

“Just as women and children are uniquely affected by conflict and displacement, people with disabilities face special challenges when their lives are suddenly uprooted because of war,” said Shantha Rau Barriga, disability rights director at Human Rights Watch.

Eyewitness News reached out to the National Assembly of People with Disabilities of Ukraine (NAIU), which represents over 100 public organisations from different regions of Ukraine, which deal with issues affecting persons with disabilities.

"Today our cities and towns are being ruined completely; they destroy hospitals, schools, railway and bus stations and cathedrals; they bomb civilian populations," said NAIU's Larysa Bayda referring to Russia's army.

NAIU told Eyewitness News that some people with disabilities had been contributing to the war effort in various ways.

"But our country stands united. People with disabilities defend their families shoulder to shoulder with others: they weave camouflage netting, make Molotov cocktails, cook meals, deliver medicines to hospitals, offer accommodation to their internally displaced compatriots, or sew underwear for soldiers. Ukrainians are a peaceful nation, but when necessary we all pull together irrespective of whether one has a disability or not," Bayda said.

According to the United Nations, more than one billion people or 15% of the global population have a disability.
People with disabilities are recognised as among the most marginalised and at-risk populations in any crisis-affected community.

“While donors and aid agencies are juggling multiple concerns during conflict, they should ensure that people with disabilities get the help they need,” said Shantha Rau Barriga, Disability Rights Director at Human Rights Watch.

NAIU told Eyewitness News that the state was trying everything it could to evacuate people living with disabilities.

“The state is doing everything possible. The situation is particularly severe in communities where people with disabilities together with other civilians became hostages. Russian troops do not allow them to leave and use them as a human shield in their military hostilities,” NAIU said.

Trains have been made available to get people across the border to countries that will host Ukrainian refugees but first they must find a way to reach Kyiv to be able to access these trains.

“There are free-of-charge trains running from Kyiv, and people with disabilities, women, and children can travel to the border and then to the countries that host Ukrainian refugees. Before that, they reached Kyiv by bus, car, or train”.

Those during the war who can’t leave their areas have to find safety in bunkers and shelters but these places are not built with disabled people in mind.

“In cities and towns that are shelled less, disability organisations fitted out shelters at their premises to host people with disabilities from other communities. Due to the lack of adapted air-raid shelters, people with severe disabilities and mothers of children with disabilities mostly stay at home during shelling,” said NAIU’s Bayda.

According to the Women’s Refugee Commission, 6.7 million people with disabilities are forcibly displaced as a result of persecution and other human rights violations, conflict, and generalised violence.

NAIU said that it was unsure how many disabled people have managed to escape to other countries.

“We don’t have general statistics for people with disabilities who managed to leave," Bayda said.

The findings by the Women’s Refugee Commission showed that children with disabilities, in particular, are at risk of abandonment and violence during emergency situations, and yet their particular needs are often not taken into account in aid efforts.

“Our organisation is the largest association of disability organisations in Ukraine, but today we are unable to reach many people and, therefore, we don’t have clear information even concerning members of our association,” said Bayda.

During a crises everyone needs help but the challenges created by war, natural disasters are compounded for people with physical, communication and other disabilities.

Human Rights Watch pointed out that people with disabilities often have difficulty getting aid because facilities are not designed to allow independent navigation by people who are blind or use wheelchairs, and information is not provided in accessible, easy-to-understand formats.

This means that persons with disabilities are too often left behind.