As August comes to an end and the war in Ukraine reaches its six-month mark, the majority of people with disabilities continue to face abandonment and imminent danger by Russian soldiers as humanitarian groups struggle to evacuate them from their war-ravaged homeland. According to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, there are 2.7 million people with disabilities still at risk in Ukraine. And as of late summer, the U.N. says that of the approximately 11 million refugees who’ve reached the country’s western border, few have been people with disabilities.
Speaking from a place of refuge in the Netherlands, a young Ukrainian physical therapist and mother of a 2-year-old son, spoke of the harrowing journey from her home in the northeastern city of Kharkiv to the country’s western border. “Crossing the border on foot for some people was close to impossible,” Alexandra said. “Some people could not move by themselves, and children who had special needs, such as special utensils to eat with or a special kind of food they required, had to go without. One young girl had to be hospitalized because she was severely dehydrated and had lost so much weight.”
At two global webinars held this spring Alexandra and representatives from humanitarian aid organizations in Europe and North America appealed to the world for financial donations. In addition, they said, there must be a worldwide awareness that people with disabilities in Ukraine are at risk of abandonment and violence.
Alexandra and her son had traveled with families who had children with physical or developmental disabilities. Others had older family members who were disabled or elderly and frail. For lack of room on buses, she said, some travelers weren’t allowed to bring needed equipment to function properly or independently.
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city after Kyiv, has been under intense attack since the invasion began. In attempting to leave the city by way of humanitarian corridors – designated routes agreed upon by Ukrainian and Russian officials for civilians to evacuate – she said, “The Russian soldiers violate the agreements. People were shot trying to find safety. Trains were choked with travelers trying to escape to the western border.”
Alexandra’s experience was not an isolated one. One week after the first webinar, a Russian missile hit a railway station in the city of Kramatorsk, southeast of Kharkiv, where thousands of civilians, mostly women and children, were trying to escape. More than 50 people, including children, were killed and more than 100 injured as they waited for trains to take them to safer regions of Ukraine on their way to bordering countries. And two days before the second webinar, five more railway stations in central and western Ukraine were hit by Russian air strikes within a single hour.
“PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES ARE ALMOST ALWAYS THE LAST GROUP PEOPLE REMEMBER.”
In the United States, Barbara Merrill, CEO of the American Network of Community Options and Resources (ANCOR), spoke from her office in Alexandria, Virginia. “People with disabilities are almost always the last group people remember,” she said. “ANCOR has always had to fight to get people with disabilities the help they needed, whether it was Hurricane Katrina or the COVID-19 pandemic. And the war in Ukraine is no different.”
Merrill said that although ANCOR’s purpose is to represent service providers in the Washington, D.C., area, many of their workers work internationally and are taking more interest in aid organizations across the globe. As a result, she said, aid workers and their organizations are becoming more engaged internationally and finding they’ve all experienced difficulty in getting relief aid targeted specifically for people with disabilities.
Just as important as financial donations, Merrill said, is public awareness. Every day she scans news stories about the war and finds coverage of people with disabilities “relatively low” to the number of stories she sees about the war overall. “The amount of media attention is nowhere where it needs to be,” she said.
“Please get in touch with international organizations or make connections with the press. We are all interconnected, and what is happening to people with disabilities in Ukraine is, if we don’t respond, ultimately what happens to all of us.”
“IT’S HARD TO FIND NEW FACILITIES IN THE FEW AREAS THAT ARE SAFE, AND THERE IS NO PLACE IN UKRAINE THAT CAN BE CONSIDERED SAFE.”
Representing the Ukrainian government, Oksana Zholnovych spoke from the capital city of Kyiv. “The front lines cover a lot of territory, and a lot of people in those areas are people with intellectual and physical disabilities,” she said. “It’s hard to find new facilities in the few areas that are safe, and there is no place in Ukraine that can be considered safe. Cities are constantly being shelled and bombarded. The constant attacks have left civilians with their homes destroyed and without access to food, water, medicine, and other necessities, forcing them to seek refuge in other countries.”
Zholnovych emphasized three areas where help is most needed: getting people with disabilities to safety, saving those with intellectual disabilities, and replacing assistive technology that has been destroyed in the war.
To get people with disabilities to safety, the government has initiated evacuation procedures. Zholnovych said the most convenient way so far has been to send them by railway to the Polish city of Chelm, 15 miles from Ukraine’s western border where they stay until they can be transferred to other countries that are hospitable to refugees.
Saving people with intellectual disabilities is particularly difficult, Zholnovych said. They are especially vulnerable because many don’t have a clear understanding of the war taking place around them. Some, she said, are unable to respond to air raid warnings and don’t understand they must get to a bomb shelter. She also explained that when Soviet control of Ukraine ended in 1991, the new government’s social services department moved people with intellectual disabilities out of large, impersonal institutions into smaller residential buildings. Many of those buildings are in eastern Ukraine where they’ve been under extensive attack since the invasion began. She said there are about 20 facilities with approximately 4,000 residents who still need to be relocated to western Ukraine.
Assistive Technology is also a dire need. Refugees, humanitarian workers, hospitals, and other medical service providers need replacements for equipment that has been destroyed by bombardments of shelling or land mines that are on timers and sensors. For the time being, Zholnovych said, the World Health Organization (WHO) is cooperating with Ukraine to resupply some of this equipment.
“THE WHOLE PROCESS IS VERY COMPLICATED AND EXPENSIVE, AND NOW IN UKRAINE THERE ARE MILLIONS OF PEOPLE ON THE RUN.”
Speaking from The Hague in the Netherlands was Eric Bloemkolk, Director of SOFT tulip [sic], a network of Dutch service providers that has partnered with aid organizations in Ukraine for 15 years. Formed to find housing for people in need, particularly people with disabilities, the elderly, and those with mental health issues, it also provides early childhood intervention as an alternative to institutionalization. It was the organization that found a home for Alexandra, herself a caregiver on an intervention team, and her son.
Bloemkolk said the Netherlands is eager to help refugees, as are Poland, Slovakia, and Germany. But, he said, there are many who can’t get to these countries because there aren’t enough financial resources. He said that while refugees wait to gain entrance to the Netherlands or find a home, SOFT tulip pays for the costs of hotels, transportation, and gasoline. He said, “The whole process is very complicated and expensive, and now in Ukraine there are millions of people on the run.”
Bloemkolk said that with more resources they could help many more people than they have so far. “In a short amount of time,” he said, “living facilities in the Netherlands were emptied and renovated, and within two weeks of the invasion we were able to receive 282 people with disabilities from Ukraine ranging in age from 3-months-old to 82.”
“WE SEE THE TRAUMA, WE SEE THE HORRIBLE VIDEOS AND PHOTOGRAPHS, WE SEE THE BOMBS EXPLODING, AND WE CAN ONLY PONDER HOW ON EARTH TO COPE WITH ALL THESE SITUATIONS.”
James Crowe is President of the European Association of Service Providers for Persons with Disabilities. Based in Brussels, the organization represents 20,000 support services for persons with disabilities throughout Europe. Like his colleagues, Crowe says donations are badly needed. He said EASPD will be lobbying the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, and “any national governments we can” for funds.
Throughout the summer, EASPD has been setting up six Temporary Regional Offices (TROs) in Chelm, Poland; Budapest, Hungary; Palanca, Moldova; Isaacea, Romania; Varna, Bulgaria; and Senec, Slovakia, where refugees are being relocated.
Maya Doneva, EASPD’s Secretary General and the person coordinating the project, said the regional offices are necessary to facilitate communication among the different locations and ensure that humanitarian aid reaches people with disabilities. She said they need to have aid workers physically at the spots where people in need of help are. “I think we are slowly realizing on all levels – human, personal, professional – that thoughts and prayers will not alone fix the situation” she said. “It is a good start, but we have to organize and act.”
“People are literally out in the cold with their autistic daughter or disabled son,” Doneva said. “They are six hours from the border with no idea where they’re going. They will actually spend the night out in the open. It is crucial that this situation is not forgotten because this is a humanitarian crisis within a humanitarian crisis.”