Europe, Russia & Eurasia, Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, Petro Jacyk Program for the Study of Ukraine

Organizing for Survival: Disability Advocacy during Russia's War Against Ukraine, from Refugees to Veterans

On October 18, the Petro Jacyk Program for the Study of Ukraine and the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto together with the Centre for Global Disability Studies (CGDS) hosted a virtual roundtable, “Organizing for Survival: Disability Advocacy during Russia's War Against Ukraine, from Refugees to Veterans.” The event was chaired by Dr. Cassandra Hartblay, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and CGDS Director.

The roundtable brought together three panelists working on the topic of disability studies and advocacy in Ukraine: Dr. Magdalena Szarota (Department of Sociology, Lancaster University); Hanna Zaremba (Department of Social Anthropology, Ethnology Institute of Ukraine), and Ivan Shmatko (Department of Sociology and Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta).

As we’ve learned during the webinar, advocacy for people with disabilities remains a pressing issue in Ukraine. Its necessity has been only been highlighted since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, in the course of which many soldiers and civilian population have become disabled. People living with disabilities have faced significant barriers to their health and safety since the invasion: information is increasingly difficult to access, and, as Dr. Magdalena Szarota noted, for people with disabilities tasks that were already challenging because of inaccessible architecture before the war became even more dangerous because of the war’s physical damage of this infrastructure.  For example, entering a basement for shelter during a shelling has added complications for a person using a wheelchair.

The essential devices such as wheelchairs have taken on their own existential qualities as makeshift evacuation vehicles with limited space force the dilemma of bringing one’s wheelchair or another person to safety. The panelists emphasized the absence of effective state assistance for people with disabilities. The need for support is often met by grassroots efforts and NGOs as well as individuals’ own social networks. Ivan Shmatko of the University of Alberta, who researches the experiences of wounded Ukrainian soldiers in collaboration with veteran organization Pryntsyp, views this as a story of inequality that prizes social capital, leaving those without a broad network of connections at a disadvantage to access treatment or support. In his words, “health shouldn’t depend on luck or which people you know.”

This is, however, by no means an attempt to depict a narrative of victimhood. Hanna Zaremba reminded attendees that even though people with disabilities are rarely presented as activists, they are in fact active participants in both the war and advocacy efforts. She argued that it is not the state but “people with disabilities who are leading the process of their rescue” amidst war conditions when many have had to flee their homes for safety. This advocacy-driven approach is a testament to the fact that, with energetic grassroots engagement, the systems that support people with disabilities in Ukraine can be changed for the better.

The recordings of the webinar, which featured sign language interpretation and simultaneous interpretation into Ukrainian, are now posted on the CERES YouTube channel. For the sign language interpretation, please choose the video the Ukrainian language recording.