There was a cruel irony surrounding an October photo exhibition in the Ukrainian capital dedicated to the success of Ukraine’s athletes at the 2016 Rio Summer Paralympics. The exhibition venue was the Olympiyska metro station, one of Kyiv’s most inaccessible places for people with disabilities. In fairness, it would have been hard to find any venue that takes the needs of physically challenged Kyivites into consideration.
This photo exhibition was a fitting tribute to the Ukrainian team that claimed third place in Brazil. However, by aiming to spark a debate on disability, the exhibition also targets the low visibility of people with disabilities in Ukraine, a country where it took sporting glory for the issue to enter the national conversation. When it comes to general attitudes towards people with disabilities, Ukraine is still haunted by the Soviet past.
While post-Euromaidan Ukrainian society is increasingly giving voice to minority concerns, the interests of people with disabilities remain overlooked. In Kyiv itself, only 4% of infrastructure qualifies as “disability friendly”. A look around the streets of central Kyiv soon makes it abundantly clear how everyday life could be a struggle for anyone with a physical disability. The footpaths and pavements are raised at least 15cm above the road surface and rarely have ramps. Many buildings are lift-free and accessible toilets are unusual. If you see a person with a visible disability, it usually means they are begging.
Countering Soviet stereotypes
People with physical disabilities in Ukraine continue to exist in a parallel reality. They are stigmatised through stereotypes as being inferior, deformed, and even contaminating. These are attitudes that stem largely from Soviet-era policies towards people with disabilities, which fed rather than challenged negative perceptions. People with visible disabilities were kept virtually as prisoners in their own homes, hidden from public view, therefore becoming seemingly invisible. Under the Soviets, the invisibility of people with disabilities positioned them as a non-problem for the regime.
Such stereotypes are difficult to break. Nevertheless, this is exactly the goal of the exhibition organisers. The Sport for Peace NGO and the initiative’s financiers, crowdfunding platform The People’s Project, hope the success of Ukraine’s paralympians will act as a springboard for wider social awareness of people with disabilities. The debate began in earnest even before the Paralympics were over when Ukraine briefly leapt ahead of the UK in the medal tally. Social activist Kateryna Avramchuk posted on Facebook: “Ukraine has already won 37 medals in the Paralympics, 12 of them are gold. We have more medals than wheelchair ramps in the average Ukrainian town.” Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze also weighed in on Facebook: “Let’s face it: it’s easier for Ukrainian paralympians to get a gold medal than to get to the store in Kyiv.”
People’s Project coordinator Maksim Ryabokon says the philosophy of the organisation is all about driving social change from the bottom up. “We hope that by catching the attention of ordinary commuters, society will become used to seeing people with disabilities in public transport. By making the link between Ukraine’s paralympians and people with disabilities in general, we hope to show that disability is not a ‘tragedy’. In fact, these sporting glories demonstrate that people with physical disabilities can be productive and valuable members of society.”
No signs of improvement
Ukraine is committed to fully integrating people with disabilities into the community as required by article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but the situation may actually be deteriorating. A three-year study released by Disability Rights International (DRI) last year showed the numbers of children with disabilities in Ukraine condemned to life in orphanages and institutions was on the rise. DRI said its three-year investigation found Ukraine was expanding orphanages and children’s homes, going against the global trend toward helping people with disabilities to integrate into society. The issue of rights for people with disabilities looks set to take on increasing urgency in Ukraine as Russia’s hybrid war has left thousands of people with physical disabilities including amputations.
Ukraine’s Paralympic champions often complain that they took up sport because it was the only opportunity for them to support themselves. The question remains whether the success of Ukraine’s paralympians will be enough to spark a rethink in the way society treats those with disability. Will we have to wait four years for the next Paralympic Games before the issue of disability returns to the national agenda, or will there be a change in the way Ukrainian society relates to the disabled?
About the author: Jared Morgan is English content manager/editor at The People’s Project