Working together to include people with disabilities

It is estimated that 15% of the world’s population have a disability, including people with intellectual disabilities, Deaf people, autistic people and women with disabilities, reminding us that disability is diverse and often invisible.

In Ukraine and many other humanitarian situations, this figure is likely to be higher. The war means that previously available services for people with disabilities are disrupted while many other people will acquire new long-term injuries. To ensure that the needs of people with disability are mainstreamed across the humanitarian response, extra steps need to be taken to ensure that assistance is accessible and inclusive. For example, ensuring information on available assistance is available in accessible formats, facilities are physically accessible and collaborating with organizations of people with disabilities – OPDs – who are representative groups of people with disabilities.

In Ukraine, there are many examples of leaders with disabilities directly responding to the needs of people with disabilities since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Despite the challenging situation, OPDs, have mobilized support through their network across Ukraine. The National Assembly of Persons with Disabilities – an umbrella group with some 100 member organizations – reports that around 40 percent of their member organizations are displaced. Whilst this creates significant challenges, it also enables OPDs to be a source of robust qualitative and quantitative information for humanitarian actors on current barriers experienced by persons with disabilities in Ukraine.

Ukrainian disability rights activists also play a key role. One such activist is Tetiana Barantsova. Tetiana, the founder of Ami-Skhid, a regional network of NGOs that helps Ukrainians with disabilities, has been helping people with disabilities escape conflict areas and restart their lives in safety since 2014. She herself has personal experience of displacement; she was forced to flee with her family from the city of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. For her commitment to people with disabilities, she was chosen as the regional winner for Europe of the 2020 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award, a prestigious annual prize that recognizes those who have gone to extraordinary lengths to support forcibly displaced or stateless people. The government also named her its Commissioner for the Rights of People with Disabilities.

Since February 2022, Tetiana has helped to arrange transport for people with disabilities to flee to safer locations. Tetiana uses her many contacts with local authorities, NGOs and volunteers across Ukraine to help evacuate people with disabilities who call her. Tetiana explains; “We call local authorities and ask for their help … They respond [over SMS] with simple words: ‘On it’ and then send a ‘+’, and I know the person was assisted.”

Organizing accessible and inclusive evacuations is only the first step in helping people with disabilities displaced by the war. Once they have made it to safer areas, they need further support to find suitable accommodation, medical care and other services. Tetiana does her best to arrange for volunteers to meet those arriving to train stations and take them to shelters but many such buildings lack the accessible facilities and inclusive support. Many people with disabilities, including older people with disabilities, are not able to evacuate. Other persons with disabilities choose not to evacuate, with many sharing that they intend to stay in their own homes for the winter despite limited access to cash, food and heating sources.

UNHCR is intensifying efforts to reduce the barriers experienced by people with disabilities to the assistance we provide. We will collaborate with OPDs and disability rights advocates to identify solutions to common barriers to accessing our legal aid, psycho-social support and multi-purpose cash assistance programmes, and work to ensure that our shelter interventions are inclusive and adapted to the needs of people with disabilities.