Millions with disabilities ‘abandoned’ in Ukraine, charities fear

Exclusive: Warnings people with disabilities are being ‘left behind’ as refugees flee conflict

Rebecca Thomas,May Bulman
Tuesday 08 March 2022 10:13 GMT
<p>There are 2.7 million people with disabilities in Ukraine, according to the European disability forum</p>

There are 2.7 million people with disabilities in Ukraine, according to the European disability forum

Millions of people with disabilities are feared to be “abandoned” in Ukraine as aid organisations warned that few are reaching the borders.

Charities trying to help people with disabilities, particularly those with learning disabilities, within Ukraine have told The Independent there has been a “frightening […] black hole” of information about these groups.

More than a million Ukrainians have crossed the border to flee the country since the start of the Russian onslaught last week, but fears are mounting that some are struggling to get out, including many disabled people.

Aid workers have said there is a “lack of transportation” for those with disabilities, and that major organisations were not able to address their needs.

One disabilities rights organisation, the US Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, said it was currently supporting a 70-year-old woman in Lviv, but that they could not evacuate due to the lack of transport.

Others warned that adults and children with learning disabilities may have been “abandoned” within residential homes and hospitals across the country as staff at the facilities flee the conflict.

There are 2.7 million people with disabilities in Ukraine, according to the European disability forum, while Inclusion Europe estimates there are around 261,00 people with intellectual disabilities.

‘Left Behind’

Anna Landre, from the US Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, which is supporting evacuations of people with disabilities from Ukraine, said this group was being “left behind” as larger organisations were not able to attend their needs.

She told The Independent the “vast majority” of Ukraine’s 2.7 million disabled citizens were “facing difficulties evacuating, or cannot at all”, according to the charity’s workers on the ground.

“We’re facing a really big lack of transportation across the board for anyone, especially people with disabilities, who have specific transportation needs, so a lack of wheelchair transport,” she added.

“There are some people we’ve talked to who need to be transported lying down and there’s just a real lack of that. We’ve been looking for days for an accessible car that one of our volunteers want to drive back into Ukraine to go pick people up and get them out and we cannot find one.”

Ms Landre added: “We have had disabled people who have called medical humanitarian-oriented agencies, have called their crisis hotline and said, ‘Hi, I’m a wheelchair user, with pressure sores. I need help’, and have been told: ‘Oh, we don’t help people with disabilities, you should call the Department of Social Protection’.”

If they manage to reach the borders, the refugee centres and buses are “not wheelchair accessible”, she said.

She also said her organisation had been contacted by men with disabilities, such as deaf men, who should be exempt from military service but who are being stopped at the border, with attempts to draft them in.

Chris Roles, managing director for Age International, said elderly people were also “incredibly vulnerable” in this situation, adding: “Many older people and those with disabilities will be unable to flee the violence: they may be housebound or unable to walk without support.

“Some can’t make the long arduous journey out of the country because their health is bad, or because they are suffering from osteoporosis or heart disease, and so won’t be able to make the trip.”

‘Black hole’ of information

Fears are also mounting about the safety of people in residential care homes, as charities say there is a lack of information about how they can be helped to leave the country.

The Independent understands that the Ukraine Red Cross has been helping to evacuate people with disabilities and mobility issues to shelters or safer areas, but that it does not have capacity to facilitate disabled individuals and families wanting to leave the country.

Adam Zawisny, from the Polish Association for Persons with Intellectual Disability, said there was a “frightening [...] black hole” in information on what to do in this situation.

He said thousands of young people from children’s homes had been evacuated to Poland over the last few days, partly because there were no staff in the institutions to care for them and due to dangers of being hit by shells.

However, Mr Zawisny said there wasn’t the equivalent happening for adult residential and social care homes, adding: “It’s hard to believe that the situation will be better than in the homes for children which were evacuated.”

Eric Rosenthal, executive director of Disability Rights International, told The Independent those within institutions were most at risk of being abandoned.

“We know around 100,00 to 200,000 children are in institutions within Ukraine – the number of adults from what I’ve seen is probably at least that and probably more. One organisation on the ground told us they had two people within institutions and no way of getting them out,” he said.

“They’re having serious transportation problems. All of the people with disabilities in Ukraine are at risk but the people who have been put away in institutions have no one to protect them, no outreach to ensure their safety, and they are at immediate life-threatening danger.”

Charities have also warned about increasing challenges in accessing medication and treatment for people with disabilities.

Milan Šveřepa director of Inclusion Europe, said that obtaining medication, such as epilepsy pills, had become “impossible” and accessing bomb shelters “incredibly difficult” for people with conditions such as autism who were left to “just stay in their homes hoping for the best”.

Inclusion Europe said in a statement that it had also received reports this week of “families with their children with disabilities [living] in the bathrooms or basements to protect themselves from bombs”.

Emanuele Capobianco, chief of strategy and impact, for the World Health Organisation Foundation said: “The needs of people with disabilities are severely increased in this conflict both inside and outside of the country. As many more people are desperate for protection and shelter and hospitals struggle to treat the sick and wounded, people with disabilities are more at risk. Life-saving support is vital for people across Ukraine and refugees in neighbouring countries affected by this crisis.”

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.

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