People with disabilities face heightened risks in humanitarian emergencies across the world, but as a blind woman from the northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, I’ve now experienced what this means first-hand.
Since the Russian invasion began at the end of February, an estimated 2.7 million people in Ukraine with disabilities have faced a disproportionate risk of abandonment, violence, and death while also suffering from a lack of access to safety and aid assistance.
Prior to the invasion, I lived with my elderly parents, who are also blind, in a small apartment in the northern part of Kharkiv, about 40 kilometres from the Russian border. My closest family (including me, my brother, and our parents) have since made it to western Ukraine, where it’s much safer. But my brother’s wife, whose father doesn’t want to leave the city, as well as friends who have severely disabled relatives who need special transportation, remain in harm’s way near Kharkiv’s front line.
Wheelchair users aren’t able to get into public shelters at all, and the needs of deaf people and people on the autism spectrum are rarely taken into account by the authorities.
On 24 February, I woke up at 5:01 am to the sounds of faraway bombardment. At first, I didn’t realise the noise I was hearing was the shelling of villages and small towns close to the Ukrainian-Russian border. But my father switched on the radio, and I started to scroll through Facebook postings using a screen reader app to figure out what was going on.
Within a few minutes, we learned that Russian forces had launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The sounds we were hearing were the shelling of civilian areas – explosions that hit schools, hospitals, and people’s houses in villages close to the border.
Living under the bombs
Initially, I wasn’t afraid. I had listened to news podcasts and knew the Russian army had been gathering at our borders. I had been mentally preparing to evacuate – in the event that an invasion actually happened. I had also heard about the reality of war from blind and partially sighted people who had suffered in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine in 2014 and 2015, when Russia annexed Crimea and started supporting a separatist campaign against the Ukrainian military.
When the invasion began, I knew that people with severe disabilities would find themselves in the most disadvantaged positions as the war unfolded: It’s difficult for us to locate the same news and resources about what’s happening as other people, and bomb shelters are often difficult to access. In Kharkiv, many shelters had been set up in the basements of houses, schools, and hospitals, and they almost always lacked places to sit, toilets, and a water supply. Wheelchair users aren’t able to get into public shelters at all, and the needs of deaf people and people on the autism spectrum are rarely taken into account by the authorities.
For my family, reaching one of these shelters would have taken us approximately 40 minutes as we made our way walking with white canes, panicking under the air raid sirens. My mother also suffers from kidney cancer, and she wouldn’t have been able to stay in such rudimentary conditions. Instead, I asked my brother – who is sighted and lives about two kilometres away – and his wife to come and stay with us in our flat, which is bigger than theirs and closer to the ground floor.
During those first days, I wasn’t thinking about evacuating to western Ukraine. I was more worried I might be unable to continue the courses I give about special and inclusive education to students seeking to become teachers at universities in Kharkiv, and I was wrestling with how I could carry on getting to the campus by public transport without being hit by shelling.
It was only after the university officially announced that classes had been suspended that I realised how bad the situation was and started thinking about evacuating my family from the city. By then, it was too late. Trains and buses had been cancelled. There was no fuel at petrol stations or cash to withdraw from ATMs. Traffic jams clogged every highway leading from the city. Most food products had disappeared from the shelves of the shops.
As the shelling got closer, people were panicking more and more.
On 1 March, a bomb shell damaged the the V. Korolenko boarding school for blind children in Kharkiv, wounding two people and terrifying several dozen current and former students who had gathered there to board an evacuation bus. International NGOs (like HelpAge International and People in Need), along with a local organisation called Stantsia Kharkiv, have been providing humanitarian assistance to people with disabilities since 2014, but they barely had enough resources to assist disabled families along the former front lines, much less to rapidly expand their activities across the entire Russia-Ukraine border region where we lived.
Luckily, there were other local NGOs – like the Right of Choice, Fight for Right, and Dostupno.ua – that worked with EU partners to organise the evacuation of people with disabilities from Kharkiv. Friends of mine have also created a Facebook group to coordinate support and evacuation for people with special needs and disabilities.
Having a severe disability in a military conflict zone means being dependent on somebody else’s help.
As the pace of evacuation from Kharkiv picked up – after weeks of living under bombardment – my family was fortunate to leave the city on an evacuation train. But not only were many people with disabilities unable to take cover in bomb shelters, many also received no information about evacuations because details were being circulated using images and memes that people without internet access or the right apps couldn’t read.
Others who were living full-time in hospitals, especially those with severe intellectual or physical challenges, remained where they were throughout the bombing, for weeks and sometimes longer. Fortunately, most have now been evacuated to safety by local authorities and internationally funded NGOs.
What does the future hold?
Reflecting on those first weeks of the war in Kharkiv, this is what I learned: Having a severe disability in a military conflict zone means being dependent on somebody else’s help. No matter how capable you used to be in “normal life”, when bombs and missiles are falling from the sky above your head, you will become extremely helpless and unable to survive without other people’s assistance.
This is why aid organisations must follow the UN’s guidelines to make sure people with disabilities aren’t left behind in the humanitarian response, and why parties to the armed conflict must uphold their international obligations to ensure the safety of people with disabilities.
But we can only hope that our house hasn’t been destroyed; that there will be a place to go back to. In the worst-case scenario, my family will have to seek refuge in a completely unfamiliar place – either in western Ukraine or outside the country – where we will have to rely on charity to survive, at least until my brother and I can find jobs to earn a living.
But I don’t want to live off the charity of others. I have spent most of my life working to gain financial independence, to be able to provide my family with the basic comforts and the small pleasures of good food and annual vacations within Ukraine, where there are still so many places we have yet to visit.
Additional reporting and editing support from Daniel J. Gerstle, journalist and founder of Humanitarian Bazaar, an organisation which produces creative projects focused on how people survive war and disaster.
* The author’s exact location is being withheld over security concerns.