The “Invisible” Public: Living With a Disability in Ukraine
27 August, 2017

In 2010, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities came into force in Ukraine. Suddenly, three million ‘invisible’ people got the chance to start a new life — at least, that’s what many hoped would happen.

But something went wrong — and not just in rural towns and villages, but also even the capital of Ukraine. Disabled people in Kyiv face a daily struggle against the utter lack of accessibility and facilities in the city. Some local authorities have even failed to make reasonable adjustments in hospitals and on public transport.

Meanwhile, the huge success of the Ukrainian Paralympic team at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro highlighted the amazing potential of the country’s disabled athletes. “Invisible” is a film by Bohdan Kutiepov that examines two intertwined stories: the struggles of people with disabilities in Ukraine and the phenomenon of the Ukrainian Paralympic team.

Photo credit: Bohdan Kutiepov/HROMADSKE

Terminal F at Kyiv’s Borispil airport is usually empty. But on September 22, 2016, despite heavy rain, it was filled with people coming to greet Ukraine’s victorious Paralympic team. There were parliamentarians, state officials, relatives and friends of the athletes, civil society activists, and proud fans among the crowd.

The scope of the Paralympic athletes was previously unfathomable — 170 medals!

But that is hardly the entire story of people with disabilities in Ukraine. They often struggle with accessibility and social integration at home. Filmmaker Bohdan Kutiepov set out to examine two intertwined stories: the struggles of people with disabilities in Ukraine and the phenomenon of the Ukrainian Paralympic team.

Olena Molodanova

Olena calls her wheelchair a “Lego constructor.” She says that this model is the best for getting in and out of a car. But even such a wheelchair doesn’t make her feel free.

Olena has been in a wheelchair since she was 21. It took her around two years to get used to using a wheelchair. She then entered the university and became the head of a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Mariupol. Currently, Olena Molodanova is co-founder of “The Union of Journalists with Disabilities of Ukraine” NGO and advisor to the Mariupol mayor on issues of accessibility in the city. She is also the winner of international swimming competitions and a world champion in karate.

“What are those ramps for if we don’t stay positive and don’t show our desire to be full members of society?” she asks.

We attempted to enter a supermarket with Olena, then to visit her friend. Although the supermarket turned out to be more or less accessible, there were many barriers — curbs, stairs — on our way to her friend’s place.

“It’s good that I’m an active and positive person, who is always looking for adventures,” she says. “But there are also people who are shy about their situation. What should they do? They often don’t have a person who can even accompany them. There is no social service which we can apply to for such assistance.”

Olena is convinced that Ukraine needs a special government program to solve this issue because even hospitals are often inaccessible to people with disabilities.

“The problem can be solved if the majority [of the public] influences and pressures the government accordingly,” Olena says.

The Ukrainian Association of the Blind

“Schoolchild” (“Shkolyar” in Ukrainian) is the oldest children’s magazine in the former Soviet Union to be published in braille.

Editor-in-chief Nataliya Scherban shows us an issue from last year. This year, however, the Ministry of Social Policy hasn’t allocated funding for “Shkolyar.” Nonetheless, Scherban and her colleagues keep publishing “Ray” (“Promin” in Ukrainian), a large-print magazine for adults with visual impairments.

But the fate of this magazine is also under threat. For several decades, the editorial office has been located on the first two floors of a building in central Kyiv. This building was constructed with money from the Ukrainian Association for the Blind.

But in the late 1980s, many buildings changed ownership. The first two floors and the editorial office were transferred from the Association for the Blind to the balance of the Kyiv City Council. After that, the editorial office had to pay rent. Then, in 2014, they were asked to leave the building. For over two years, they have been suing the Kyiv City Council.

According to Nataliya Scherban, both the Kyiv City Council and the district administration assured them that the lawsuit is a formality to legitimize the transfer of the premises back to them.

“The Kyiv City Council convenes a commission on ownership, which unanimously supports us and says that, in order to legitimize this decision, and to get rid of the problem, it’s better to apply to court so it can render a legal verdict,” she explains. “[They say] they aren’t authorized to do it themselves, but won’t resist it in court. They just asked us to take these actions.”

But what happened next? The Kyiv City Council filed an appeal. It didn’t agree with the decision rendered in favor of the Ukrainian Association of the Blind.

“We were told not to worry, to go through with this appeal process...In August, we received a cassation appeal from the Kyiv City Council,” Scherban says. “We called this department of communal property and they said clearly that we would be fighting until the end.”

Valeriy Sushkevych

“What is this?” exclaims Valeriy Sushkevych as he approaches a building with stairs and no wheelchair ramp. “This is the Supreme Economic Court of Ukraine, after all!”

Sushkevych, who heads the Assembly of People with Disabilities in Ukraine, came to court to support the Ukrainian Association of the Blind.

Valeriy Sushkevych is 62, though he looks younger than 50. He has lived with a disability since childhood. He heads the Paralympic Committee and Assembly of People with Disabilities. People trust him and often wait near the elevator at his office to personally ask him for help.

The Paralympic team has already returned from Brazil, and now Sushkevych is fighting for the fortune promised to the athletes at the airport. These people who have achieved so much in sports often find themselves helpless before the bureaucratic machine. Now, that machine is hiding exactly how much more money was allocated to the Olympic Games than to the Paralympic Games.

After the Paralympic team’s victory, civil activists and officials began suggesting taking Ukrainian war veterans with disabilities and athletic making champions of them.

“Look, a champion is a person who has talent and skills, desire, conditions and time for preparation,” Sushkevych explains. “And who are ATO veterans today? They have unhealed wounds. We call them ‘fresh’ in our slang. And activists come to me with such ideas. Of course, I blow them off. Because first of all, we need to give people the opportunity to realize themselves in life without legs. Our Paralympic athletes already have this understanding.”

The Lawsuit

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and high-ranking officials gathered at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium to congratulate the Paralympic and Olympic teams. Filmmaker Bohdan Kutiepov went there with a different purpose: to tell the officials about the Ukrainian Association of the Blind’s struggle to keep its office space.

But he didn’t manage to speak personally with Poroshenko about this situation. Instead, the Ukrainian president ordered his press secretary, Svyatoslav Tsegolko, to make a note and sort everything out.

Several days later, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko invited the Paralympic athletes and coaches who live in Kyiv to a reception. Nataliya Scherban managed to speak with Klitschko there.

“The blind are in a desperate situation and are ready to protest,” she said.

For the first time in public, Vitali Klitschko promised that the offices would be transferred to the Ukrainian Association of the Blind. “There is no need to protest. Tell the Ukrainian Association of the Blind that Vitali Klitschko...will make everything possible to transfer ownership rights for those offices to them,” he said.

Nevertheless, a protesters gathered in front of the Supreme Economic Court of Ukraine during the final court hearing on the matter. But everyone was extremely happy when the court finally rendered a verdict in favor of the Association.

/Translated by Olga Kuchmagra