We must not forget people with disabilities in Ukraine

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The plight of people living with disabilities in Ukraine and their families is real. These people need help, and they need it now, writes Helen Portal.

The plight of people living with disabilities in Ukraine and their families is real. These people need help, and they need it now, writes Helen Portal.

Helen Portal is the Policy and advocacy officer at Inclusion Europe. Inclusion Europe represents 20 million people with intellectual disabilities and their families from 39 countries. Updates on Ukraine can be found here

There are estimated 2.7 million people with disabilities in Ukraine. Some 260,000 of them are people with intellectual disabilities. Most of them cannot leave their homes to escape the war: shelters are inaccessible, evacuation doesn’t reach them, travelling for days in overcrowded transport is simply unimaginable if you have someone with intellectual disability or autism with you. Sometimes mothers are already of a certain age, and they stayed alone with their adult child with disability.

Lack of medicines, lack of food, lack of respite. And the inability to even shelter properly. That is the reality for people with disabilities and their families in Ukraine, most of whom cannot leave the Russian war zone.

People with disabilities urgently need their medication. Especially antiepileptic medication, the stress increased epileptic crisis for many of them. In some cities, even if it is still possible to go to shops or pharmacies, food or medication are getting scarce. Sometimes, bank stopped functioning.

People need money, they also need food and medication supplies, and accessible help for evacuation.

Humanitarian aid is mainly focused on organizing the evacuation of people who managed to reach the border. NGOs and disabled people’s organisations have shown a tremendous amount of support to refugees with disabilities, trying to provide medication and accessible solutions.

Governmental bodies and European institutions should coordinate the response at EU level on the welcoming of refugees with disabilities and their families, to provide the appropriate support and avoid the separation of families; and humanitarian aid must reach people with disabilities, whether in families or in institutions.

Our families stayed in Kharkiv. It is very difficult. There are difficulties for adults with intellectual disabilities. The food is minimal, but we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. We can’t go outside since we can’t leave them at home or anywhere else. There is no help and no support.”

This is just one very common picture of what we hear from families across Ukraine. Inclusion Europe has been in direct contact with them since the start of the war, to listen to their stories, report their needs, and help where we can.

“There is constant bombing, and we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Who will be alive? Every morning we do a roll call to see who is alive and where, and who has left,” says another contact from Kharkiv, a person who is running a disability support centre.

There are an estimated 2.7 million people with disabilities in Ukraine. Some 260,000 of them are people with intellectual disabilities. Most of them cannot leave their homes to escape the war: Shelters are inaccessible, evacuation doesn’t reach them, travelling for days on overcrowded transport is simply unimaginable if you have someone with intellectual disability or autism with you.

“My children and I very often go down to bomb shelters, some to basements. Our children with physical and mental disorders are frightened there have panic attacks. It’s hard for both children and parents. Sometimes you have to drag them into a shelter. Many of them are adults,” one mother says.

The VGO Coalition brings together 14,000 Ukrainian families. Their appeals for help include supplies of food and medicine or accessible equipment for shelters. Stores are getting emptier and emptier every day. Money is scarce, with many not receiving their retirement pensions. And even for those who have some money and have available products in shops, actually getting it is not so easy.

“Families are afraid to leave disabled children and old people to go outside for food and necessary medicines. Children with autism become aggressive. Children with Down syndrome fall into a deep depression. It is very problematic to transport children with cerebral palsy to bomb shelters,” says another helper.

There are also tens of thousands of people with disabilities in residential care institutions across Ukraine. There is already news of them being abandoned as the staff flee from the war or have severe food and water supplies issues.

Some of the people with disabilities, including their families, do manage to leave. They represent around 10% of the war refugees seeking shelter in the West of Ukraine and in the neighbouring countries.

“Maybe 100 people with high support needs arrive to Poland daily,” says Adam Zawisny from PSONI, an organisation in Poland supporting refugees with intellectual disabilities. “We need accessible accommodation, wheelchairs, rehabilitation. The NGOs alone cannot cope for much longer.”

As the Russian war devastates lives and homes of innocent Ukrainians, those of them with disabilities must not be left on their own. They need help, and they need it now.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe