Fragments from a War Diary, Part #113
During my period in Ukraine I have become interested in the lives of people with disabilities both in modern Ukraine in general and in wartime Ukraine in particular. The Soviet Union was never a particularly hospitable place for people living with disabilities, who were generally expected to stay at home and out of sight where they would be cared for by their families if at all. Those without families would be placed in shared public accommodation for people with disabilities where they would often be neglected. As Soviet society collapsed into widespread penury amidst the disintegration of the Soviet Union into its constant nations and the consequent economic disorder that arose as state-owned companies ceased continuous operations, the interests and welfare of disabled people were neglected even more comprehensively as the government-run institutions that had provided some care for those living with disabilities ceased to function effectively. As with the problem of orphans cared for in state institutions that likewise ceased properly to operate, the problem of providing appropriate care and support for people with disabilities amplified exponentially.
Although as part of the process of accession towards European legal standards Ukraine adopted legislation in 2011 and again in 2014, seeking to uphold the rights and protect the welfare of disabled people and prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of disability, this legislation is widely ignored or only lip service is paid to it. The idea of disability-friendly building entrances is virtually unheard of in Ukraine, save in a handful of modern government buildings. The traditional tenement buildings and old apartment buildings you will find in any Ukrainian town or city will typically have no facilities for disabled people. There will be no ramp for disabled people to use wheelchairs. There may be steep steps up to enter the building, even the ground floor. Many buildings do not have elevators and even where there are elevators they may not function adequately. Many people with disabilities, including the elderly who may have mobility impairment, are effectively trapped on the upper floors of multi-storey buildings, prisoners in their own homes, because they cannot traverse the stairs. My own apartment where I am present as I write these words is on the fourth floor of a building in which there are crumbling old stone stairs, each of which is uneven and with a tenuous banister that rattles and shakes as you hold it. The stone stairs are falling away at the edges. The lighting for the staircase is wholly inadequate and at night you need to use a torch to descend the stairs. It is a hard slog up the stairs, even for a relatively fit and healthy person like me. For an elderly person or a person with a disability that constraints their movement, it is impossible to live in this building unless you never leave your own apartment. And this is one of the better apartment buildings in Lviv.
Widespread discrimination exists against people with disabilities. I have heard stories of a disabled person going to view an apartment for rent and then, when the landlord saw that the person had a disability, they rejected them openly and out of hand, saying that they had no confidence that the disabled person would be able to make a living and pay the rent. This is despite the fact that the disabled person has a permanent full-time paying job: something of a rarity in wartime Ukraine. I have also been told that if a disabled person contacts a driving school and asks for driving lessons, they may be treated with contempt, being asked why they want to drive: driving is not for disabled people and they should leave driving to the able-bodied. This sort of outrageous and offensive social attitude is prevalent in Ukraine. It is by all accounts more common in the smaller towns and cities but nevertheless it is omnipresent.
On the other hand there are some glimmers of hope. I noticed that the Lviv Opera House, that most excellent institution, made ample provision for a disabled person attending the ballet, relocating that person to a more convenient seat so that accommodation could be made for their wheelchair; and people were helpful and pleasant in assisting wheelchair use. However this appears to be the exception rather than the rule. Notwithstanding legislation intended to protect disabled people, old-fashioned stigmas and ignoble attitudes towards people living with disabilities persist. The state, I am told, provides no particular financial assistance or contributions to help people with disabilities live normal lives even if their disabilities prevent them from working. This falls beneath European norms.
A number of NGO’s have emerged recently to assist people with disabilities living through the war in Ukraine and over the coming days I look forward to opportunities to meet with them and discuss further their work and the challenges they face. The massive number of new amputees who have suffered front line injuries from their periods serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces in their trenches, where they have typically lost limbs as a result of shelling, presents a major challenge to Ukraine as it suddenly has a new generation of young people who will spend the rest of their lives living with mobility and other disabilities associated with the loss of limbs and it does not seem to me that the Ukrainian government is at all ready for this challenge. A substantial effort I understand was made by a number of NGO’s to move people with disabilities out of territories under occupation who did not want to remain under occupation but were unable themselves to make arrangements to leave by reason of their disabilities. This work is now as complete as it can be because it is no longer possible to cross the front line between free Ukraine and the zone of Russian occupation but it illustrates some of the good work that NGO’s were performing in the early period of the conflict where the government was proven to be unable to act.
In wartime, tolerance, decency and humanity towards people with disabilities may decrease as the population as a whole undergoes collective trauma and old-fashioned intolerant attitudes may return. At the same time Ukraine is undergoing an exponential increase in the number of people with disabilities and there needs to be a countrywide plan to address the needs of these people, both amputees and others with physical and psychiatric injuries as a result of war, including mental health problems; and those living with other forms of disability who are liable to be neglected as the collective national attention is focused elsewhere. International resolve is required to address this issue, as Ukrainian domestic institutional frailties, exacerbated by wartime conditions, mean that the government is unable to cope. This means international funding, preferably governmental, and deploying the resources of the international and domestic NGO network to assist the shockingly large number of Ukrainian amputees and other people living with disabilities that already exist in this the second year of the war in Ukraine.