The New Humanitarian: Ukrainians with disabilities and the war

Elderly woman evacuating at the train station in Pokrovsk Elderly woman evacuating at the train station in Pokrovsk © AP Photo/Francisco Seco

This is a summary of a testimony reported by The New Humanitarian of a Ukrainian disabled person and her family in Kharkiv

On 18 April, The New Humanitarian published the testimony of Olha Telna, Associate professor at Kharkiv Academy for Humanitarian and Pedagogical studies, disability rights activist, and a member of the National Writers’ Union of Ukraine. She told how she lived the first weeks of the war with her family, until they were forced to evacuate.

It has been estimated that since the beginning of the conflict, 2.7 million Ukrainian people with disabilities have been at risk of violence, death, and abandonment, because of the difficulty of accessing safe places. This is clearly represented by Olha Telna who states that “Wheelchair users aren’t able to get into public shelters at all, and the needs of deaf people and people on the autism spectrum are rarely taken into account by the authorities.”

Olha and her family are all blind, and prior to the Russian invasion they lived in the northern part of Kharkiv, about 40 kilometers from the Russian border. The first difficulty they encountered at the beginning of the war was gathering information: when she woke up at 5:01 am on the 24 February she didn’t realize what was happening. Only after her father switched on the radio, and she started to scroll through Facebook postings using a screen reader app, they realized that Russia had launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Initially she wasn’t thinking about taking refuge in the western part of Ukraine, also because she knew that for people with disabilities it is extremely difficult to evacuate during wars. In fact, she says that “It’s difficult for us to locate the same news and resources about what’s happening as other people, and bomb shelters are often difficult to access.” Also, the time for reaching one of those shelters is longer for them, and it would have taken approximately 40 minutes by walking under the air raid sirens.

However, after the university announced the suspension of lessons, she decided to evacuate with her family; while they leaved the city on an evacuation train, other people with disabilities were unable to reach bomb shelters and to receive information about evacuations because in many cases images and memes were used to share details.

Fortunately, there were International NGOs (like HelpAge International and People in Need), along with a local organization called Stantsia Kharkiv, which have been providing humanitarian assistance to people with disabilities since 2014. In order to improve the humanitarian response, other local NGOs – like the Right of Choice, Fight for Right, and – that worked with EU partners, helped organize the evacuation of people with disabilities from Kharkiv.

In conclusion, Olha Telna reflects about the difficulties of disabled people during armed conflicts: “Having a severe disability in a military conflict zone means being dependent on somebody else’s help. No matter how capable you used to be in “normal life”. In this regard, she encourages international and local aid organizations to follow the IASC Guidelines of the UN, to make sure that people with disabilities are protected and helped during armed conflicts and their specific needs are respected.  


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by Alexia Tenneriello

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