Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion, but Olena Yavorova does not have that option.
- The war has made it difficult to help those in need
- Many disabled people have lost their support structures
- Aid groups are trying to help them evacuate
Ms Yavorova has a rare genetic disability called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) and needs carers and a wheelchair for mobility.
For Ms Yavorova and millions of Ukrainians with disabilities, the choice to evacuate doesn’t always exist.
Inaccessible buildings and escape routes, massive distances to travel, language barriers and a lack of support have all made it difficult for people with disabilities to manage through the conflict.
“I have no volunteers, helpers, or friends near my place who can assist me with all the moving and living in a new place,” Ms Yavorova said.
“For the people who have SMA, it’s really difficult. So, we stay.”
Ms Yavorova is an artist and a survivor of the Russo-Ukrainian War, which caused her family to move from her birth city of Donetsk in 2015.
They now live in a village in the Kharkiv region in the northeast of Ukraine, where there has been a lot of fighting.
Ms Yavorova said it’s very distressing to be living with a disability during a war.
“I feel the Russian invasion is the greatest evil I know, and my country knows. It was [the] greatest shock for me and [caused] much pain [to] my country and people.”
Ms Yavorova said her home village hasn’t been attacked yet, but there are a lot of refugees coming from conflict in the city.
“We have a lot of people who come to our place from Kharkiv,” she said. “Kharkiv is really dangerous place now.”
Conflict makes it hard to reach people
Human Rights Advisor for the International Disability Alliance (IDA) Jarrod Clyne said the war was having a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities.
“As we know, the most marginalised people in societies tend to be most adversely affected by conflict,” Mr Clyne explained.
“And some of the facets of the situation of people with disabilities in Ukraine do mean that there are particular risks for them,” he said.
Those risks include limited physical access, reduced human supports, and the widespread institutionalisation of people with disabilities in Ukraine.
Mr Clyne said disabled people in Ukraine are losing supports as carers are being drafted into military service.
“The diversion of support staff being conscripted into the Ukrainian military… all of these things in totality do paint quite a grim picture, unfortunately for the 2.7 million people with disabilities in Ukraine,” he said.
When war begins, it’s common for non-government organisations and aid groups to provide support, but it can be difficult to help people with disabilities during conflict.
Non-profits reach out to those in need
Ukrainians with Spinal Muscular Atrophy who escape to Poland usually receive help from foundations like SMA Europe to evacuate and resettle across Europe and the UK.
SMA Europe board member Kacper Rucinski said the organisation launched an emergency operation after becoming “extremely worried” about Ukranians with SMA when the first attacks happened.
The not-for-profit organisation tried to make evacuations as smooth as possible with phone lines operated by organisation members, interpreters, accessible information websites, and on-ground support to get the refugees out.
Ukraine is the largest country in Europe stretching more than 1000km from border to border.
For a person who uses a battery-powered wheelchair and specialised medical equipment, this journey is dangerous.
“If you were seeing how many people were fleeing Ukraine at the same time, there where people who had to queue at the border for 20 hours, just to leave Ukraine without toilets, without anything,” Mr Rucinski said.
In the first few weeks, SMA Europe helped at least 100 families evacuate but unfortunately, they can only help people with the condition.
Less visible disabilities fly under radar
Australian refugee rights lawyer Mary Crock said disabled people can be overlooked in these situations because they don’t always report their needs.
“The problem is that people with obvious physical disabilities are easy to see,” Ms Crock said.
Not reporting can affect how disabled people are supported during war and prevent them receiving high-priority assistance and resources like food drops.
Those most affected by the Ukraine war are people with psychosocial disabilities, like PTSD and anxiety disorders.
The International Disability Alliance estimates that between 30,000 and 250,000 people with disabilities are institutionalised in Ukraine and many of them have psychosocial disabilities.
The IDA is particularly concerned about the people left in institutions without support, especially as they have received reports of Russian military targeting disabled people, which is a violation of human rights laws.
“There are very credible allegations of violations of humanitarian law, so they’re [Russia] not fulfilling their obligations of ensuring protection of persons with disabilities,” Mr Clyne said.
“Even if those facilities aren’t attacked or directly in the line of fire, there are people with high support needs who simply won’t be getting that support.”
War creates more disabilities
Ms Crock said conflicts often create more disabilities, both physical and psychosocial, which requires ongoing support after wars end.
“In fact, we know for a fact that conflicts of any kind create disabilities, soldiers are wounded, and civilians are wounded,” she explained.
She said this is already happening to Ukrainian people.
It can be difficult for people with disabilities to immigrate under normal circumstances because foreign governments are not positioned to support their high-cost medical and care needs.
According to the Department of Home Affairs, almost 3,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Australia since the war began.
Thousands of Ukrainians are evacuating to Poland and other bordering countries.
Many of those refugees have disabilities and will need ongoing support and not institutionalisation in another country.
Ms Crock said it’s usually the poorer countries like Poland that end up supporting asylum seekers.
“They do it by getting donations from the richer countries,” she said.
For Olena Yavorova, all she can do is hope a peaceful resolution is worked out sooner rather than later.