February 23, 2024

Why disabled individuals ‘do not exist’ in Ukraine

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Sofiya Tkachenko in Vienna, Austria

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December 6, 2023, Kyiv, Ukraine. A girl walks on a prosthetic leg during President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's visit to the National Children's Specialised Hospital "Okhmatdyt".

Picture by: President Of Ukraine | Flickr

In many Eastern European post-Soviet countries the practice of hiding people with disabilities persists.

Growing up in Ukraine I did not see wheelchair users in any social spaces including schools, which made me believe that they just don’t exist.

Inclusivity, defined as fair and equal treatment of all, is a crucial part of many modern conversations in politics, education and technology. I want to talk about inclusivity towards individuals with disabilities.

Ukraine, where I’m from, has a negative attitude towards disabled people. The country has 3 million people with disabilities — including an increase of 300,000 since Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022 — yet they are hidden from society, and it seems as if they are non-existent.

Sarah D. Phillips from Indiana University writes about the struggle people with disabilities faced in the Soviet Union: “During the 1980 Olympic games in Moscow, a Western journalist inquired whether the Soviet Union would participate in the first Paralympic games, scheduled to take place in Great Britain later that year. The reply from a Soviet representative was swift, firm, and puzzling: ‘There are no invalids in the USSR!’”

Using outdated and negative language, this mentality still lingers in the minds of people growing up in post-Soviet environments.

The United Nations reports that about 1.1 million children with disabilities in former Soviet countries are unaccounted for, which leads the UN to believe they are either hidden away at home or placed in institutions.

As a child, I rarely saw or communicated with disabled individuals. Seeing a person with a disability on the street was next to impossible as it was considered ‘shameful’ – such people shouldn’t be seen in public.

This discomfort of not knowing how to behave often resulted in a desire to avoid such encounters altogether.

You do not truly realise the extent of your detachment from reality until you encounter a person with a disability. My most striking encounter was with the son of one of my father’s friends with cerebral palsy – a condition affecting motor skills. I was 16 at the time, he was in his early 20s.

While cerebral palsy doesn’t necessarily impact the ability to learn, impaired muscles can hinder speech and physical communication.

Meeting him left me feeling helpless. I struggled to speak to him, unsure of the appropriate words to use or how to react to his actions. My discomfort made me keep my distance, despite not wanting to appear mean or ignorant.

Then I met his younger siblings. The children interacted with ease, including their older brother in conversations and play, as if there were no differences between them. Their comfort in the situation made me wonder why, at twice their age, I felt confused while they did not.

The truth is, their way of speaking or their actions were not anything special, or the result of any secret knowledge. They saw him first as a person and their brother before considering his disability. Regrettably, I must admit, I was not capable at the time of doing the same.

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  • President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's visit to the National Children's Specialised Hospital "Okhmatdyt" | Picture by: President Of Ukraine | Flickr

    Picture by: President Of Ukraine | Flickr

  • The problem with inclusivity lies in the systemic conditioning that leads us to believe that disabilities limit people.

    In reality, people with disabilities have different needs. For example, wheelchair users require efficient lift systems; individuals with learning disabilities benefit from alternative teaching methods; and those with movement impairments may require additional patience or attention.

    The issue isn’t a person’s inability to perform certain tasks, but rather the lack of adaptations in our environment to accommodate their needs.

    It all comes down to our perception of disabled people – if we see them as a rare inconvenience, we will never be able to provide equal opportunities.

    The first step is acknowledging their existence and recognising their potential to contribute meaningfully to society. This begins in childhood, so instead of segregating individuals with disabilities in ‘special’ educational institutions, we should make all institutions accessible to them.

    By fostering inclusivity from a young age, we cultivate a sense of equality and acceptance for all.

    How can you become more inclusive?

    The first step toward inclusivity is choosing the right words. The UK government offers guidance on language that avoids harmful implications.

    For instance, instead of using “the disabled” as a noun, it’s preferable to say “disabled people,” recognising that disability is a descriptor rather than a defining characteristic.

    Be curious. Educating yourself on the experiences and needs of people with disabilities is invaluable. Read, watch and listen to podcasts that talk about disability inclusivity. Taking this proactive approach helps to acknowledge and address the existence of these individuals, rather than ignoring them.

    Consider accessibility in your everyday life. Reflect on the accessibility of the services and tools you use regularly. Simply noticing and acknowledging these considerations is another great step towards a more inclusive mindset.

    Written by:

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    Sofiya Tkachenko

    former Editor-in-chief

    Kyiv, Ukraine | Vienna, Austria

    Born in 2006, Sofiya is originally from Kyiv, Ukraine, but now, because of the war, she has relocated to Vienna, Austria. She is interested in writing about culture and politics, especially the current situation in Ukraine and the world as a whole, but is planning on studying Biology in Vienna next year. 

    Sofiya joined Harbingers’ Magazine as a contributor in the spring of 2022. A few months later, she took on the role of the social media and the Harbingers’ Weekly Brief newsletter editor. After half a year, her devotion and hard work promoted her to the position of editor-in-chief of the magazine – in September 2023, she took the helm from Sofia Radysh, who stepped down having completed her one-year term.

    In her spare time, Sofiya organises charity poetry events and is working on multiple projects regarding the promotion of Ukrainian culture in Europe.

    She speaks Ukrainian, English, Russian, and a bit of German.

     

    Edited by:

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    Jefferson He

    Editor-in-chief

    London, United Kingdom

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