Anna Romandash meets a disabled activist who has led the way in supporting Ukraine's disabled population during Russia's horrific invasion of the country
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“It was on the second day after the invasion,” Tanya remembers, “February 25. We managed to get evacuated on inaccessible trains. People helped me all the way, carrying me, and just doing what they could.”
She stops, pensive.
“It’s all like a dream now,” she adds, “I still can’t believe we went all that way to flee.”
Tanya Herasymova is looking at me with her smart brown eyes, a puzzled gaze on her face. She is speaking from her new home in a small Danish town of Hvidovre. Tanya arrived here on 7 March 2022, during the second week of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“Living here is like a rollercoaster,” she says, giving me a sad smile. “I am very grateful for all the help, but sometimes, I miss Ukraine so much that I just want drop everything and go there. But it will be very hard to return to inaccessibility.”
She sighs. Tanya is a wheelchair user. Originally from Kamianske, a mid-sized city in eastern Ukraine, she has struggled with lack of accessible infrastructure and inclusion throughout much of her life.
Tanya is also a director of Fight for Right, a Ukrainian NGO which advocates for human rights and delivers crucial aid to those with disability. In the past year, its volunteers evacuated more than 3,000 disabled Ukrainians from the frontlines, risking and even losing their lives in the process.
Although Tanya – like many of her colleagues and disability activists – are now displaced all over Europe, they keep up their advocacy and rescue work for disabled people back home.
Disability Before the War
There are around 2.7 million people with registered disabilities in Ukraine. This is a pre-war statistic and the number may now be much higher, given the injuries from Russian attacks.
Even prior to the invasion, Ukrainians with disabilities struggled to obtain the same rights as able-bodied residents. The country lacks accessible infrastructure for people with special needs; few schools and workplaces are inclusive, too. Although the law penalises any disability-related discrimination and requires companies to hire disabled individuals, many businesses prefer to contract those without visible disabilities.
The Russian invasion created another challenge for an already-discriminated community. Most cities have no accessible shelters as well as no transport that could easily evacuate those with disabilities.
“Before the invasion, I reached out to local authorities on how prepared they were if the big war was to break out,” Tanya says, remembering early days of 2022, “and I received this piece of paper from them saying 'we don’t have any accessible bomb shelters. Good luck'. It was like a bad joke.”
Fight for Right was prepping for a potential invasion. It launched a hotline to help people deal with anxiety and stress, and organised webinars on how to get ready for a potential war. The team also launched a crowdfunding campaign to support the work of psychologists. During the invasion, the campaign raised nearly £500,000 and helped cover the evacuations of disabled individuals.
“We helped more than 14,000 people in the last year,” Tanya says, “and we’ve got one more thousand waiting for help.”
Rescues From the Frontlines
The early months of the Russian invasion were chaotic. Crowded trains carried Ukrainians from east to west; highways were jammed for days with private cars.
However, those were individual evacuations – there was no systematic rescue of people who could not get to train stations or those living in institutions. Many people with disabilities could not leave their war-affected homes – some simply could not move.
“In the beginning of the war, we saw that there was nobody doing evacuations, which meant that people were not cared for by the state,” Tanya sighed. “We had to fill that gap. Otherwise, people would die.”
Tanya’s team assembled a hotline that collected information on people stranded in their homes. They then sent volunteers to these areas.
“Only last, we evacuated people from my home region,” Tanya says. “All the evacuations take place under rockets, with a risk of missiles exploding near you. Some of our volunteers were killed when rescuing people from the frontlines. It’s very dangerous. Sometimes, the risks are too high, and we cannot go and evacuate people.”
Fight for Right has rescued more than 3,000 people in the past 14 months. Evacuations are scarcer now – primarily, there are already state-led evacuations with the Ukrainian Army taking care of civilians in the frontline area. Also, as Tanya points out, most people who wanted to flee have already done so – although there are still cases when someone finally decides to leave and asks for help.
“It’s hard for people with disabilities to leave their homes,” the activist says. “Even if it’s inaccessible, you worry that a new place will be even worse. At home, you are familiar with your area.”
Tanya knows this first-hand. In her native Kamianske, she lived on the fourth floor in a residential building. Her movement around the city was limited. Yet, she still worried about leaving it when the war started.
“My mom is disabled, too, so she would not be able to help me much if we had to get to some shelter,” Tanya says. “This risk for both of us convinced me we had to go. But I also understood those who chose to stay in dangerous areas until the end.”
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Advocating for Inclusive Reconstruction
While evacuations continue, Fight for Right focuses on psychological, legal and financial aid for people with disabilities. In addition, the team consults those who have recently become disabled because of the invasion and helps provide assistive technology like wheelchairs or hearing aids.
“Our priority is monitoring the situation in closed institutions,” Tanya says. “We also provide recommendations for the Government on how to best assist people with disabilities and involve them in Ukraine’s reconstruction.
“We’re talking all the time about new and better Ukraine, but it will never be better if different groups are not engaged. We cannot rebuild Ukraine without involving people with disabilities, so we want to make that inclusion happen.”
While there is dialogue with the Government on a more inclusive reconstruction, the war context complicates matters as disability rights are often overshadowed by other, more pressing, issues, Tanya says.
Despite it all, she cannot wait to return to Ukraine and rebuild her native country. While the struggle is not easy, and Ukraine has a long way to go towards accessibility and inclusivity, activists will continue with their fight.
“I will return to Ukraine as soon as I can,” Tanya says. “We need to change our country for the better, and nobody will do it but us. I did not have the same accessibility as many other Europeans, but my country made me stronger. So I want to return home, to Ukraine, and make it accessible for me and everyone.”
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