Kyiv, 1 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- When a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development has recently approached the director of a building in which the agency rents office space with a request to install a wheelchair access ramp, he was brusquely snubbed.
Never mind that one of the contractor's employees uses a wheelchair. Putting in a ramp, said the director, would lower the aesthetic value of the building and might dissuade others from renting in the future.
"We were ready to build the ramp with our own money," said Thomas Viertielegtski, financial program monitor for the Counterpart Alliance for Partnership, which works on social programs including aid for the disabled. "But I guess the ramp didn't fit in with their commercial interests."
Counterpart officials say the needs of Ukraine's handicapped people are widely ignored by the government and by ordinary Ukrainians.
According to official statistics, there are between 2.5 million and 3 million disabled people, including the blind and the deaf, in Ukraine. Independent experts believe the real number is nearly twice as high. But there are few facilities or services aimed at making the lives of this large group easier.
Work places, public offices, banks, stores, restaurants, and apartment complexes rarely provide wheelchair ramps or handicap bathrooms. Disabled people also find it difficult to use public transportation, such as the metro or trams, or even to cross streets, because curbs are high and ramps to underground passageways are too steep.
"Ukraine is in the stone age as far as handicap facilities are concerned," said Svetlana Mishenko, general director of Kyiv's Union of Independent Invalid Trade Organizations. "The barrier that prevents a handicapped person from living a normal life is the lack of equipment. There is no way they can use escalators, stairs, or bathrooms. The government doesn't seem to care, though."
Ukraine's lack of facilities for the handicapped is rooted in its communist past. Under an ideological system that embraced a physical and intellectual ideal, those that were disabled were often pushed aside and ignored.
"The government just never thought of providing handicapped facilities during the Soviet times," said Igor Dudnik, head of Kyiv's Coordinating Council of Disabled Organizations.
After Ukraine gained independence in 1991, the Parliament adopted a law aimed at providing rehabilitation and counseling programs for the physically disabled and creating special housing and outfitting work areas to fit their needs, according to attorney Oleg Polozyuk, program coordinator for Elwyn, a company working under the auspices of Counterpart to help those with special needs.
"The law determined the social environment for handicaps according to international standards, and public places needed to be designed to cater for disabled individuals by the year 2000," Polozyuk said. "As you can see, we have less than two years left and nothing has been done."
"The authorities say its because a lack of funds, but that isn't a valid excuse," Polozyuk added. "It's not a problem of money, but where that money is being directed."
Polozyuk estimates that only 20 percent of the money the government has allocated for improving the country's infrastructure for the physically disabled actually ends up being used for that purpose. The rest, he says, gets lost as it flows through the web of Ukraine's bureaucracy. "If all the funds were given directly to the handicapped and didn't get sucked up into government structures, the situation would improve," he said.
Polozyuk himself was paralyzed in a swimming accident and confined to a wheelchair at the age of 13. As with most of Ukraine's disabled, it was up to his family to help him continue to lead an active life. Polozyuk's father remodeled the family flat, adding ramps in order to accommodate Polozyuk's wheelchair. He also carried his son up and down four flights of stairs every day for six years, because the Shevchenko University building where Polozyuk attended law classes didn't have an elevator.
"My father asked the university officials to move the lectures to the second floor, but they refused," said Polozyuk. "We had to arrive 30 minutes early so some friends could help him. I had a Soviet wheelchair at that time and it weighed 30 kilograms. It took three men to carry me".
The government's apathy toward the handicapped is reflected not only in the lack of public and private facilities, but also in the lack of financial assistance, Polozyuk said. By law, all disabled people have the right to a monthly pension, whose rate depends upon the severity of the handicap. The majority of handicapped people receive a mere Hryvna 35 to 45 a month, while the minimal amount needed to live in Ukraine has been estimated at Hryvna 70 per month. Higher pensions are given to individuals who were injured in the Chernobyl nuclear accident or the Afghanistan war.
Ukrainian legislation also attempts to ensure employment for the handicapped by stating that each company should fill 4 percent of its staff positions with handicapped people. But Polozyuk said that most companies ignore the law and officials fail to enforce it. Many employers get around the law by putting disabled people on their employee list and then refusing to pay them, Polozyuk said. And the few disabled who are actually employed are usually the first to go when there are layoffs, he added.
The Union of Independent Invalid Trade Organizations takes a different approach to assuring employment for handicapped people: placing them with companies set up specifically by and for the physically disabled. Currently, the group has a school, an architectural firm, an advertising company, a stationery shop and a food delivery service, which together employ a large portion of Kyiv's handicap population.
"Many of the people we work with have a higher education or professional experience and had real jobs before they became handicapped," Mishenko said. "We offer courses in things like English, computers, marketing and accounting, in order to help them retrain so they can work in one of our enterprises."
Many others, however, have been forced to turn to begging on the streets. For them, playing on the sympathies of those that pass by is the only way to try to make ends meet.
Twenty-two-year-old Vasya Nichkalyuk, born with cerebral palsy, has been panhandling on Kyiv's sidewalks since moving up from Crimea nearly a year ago. "I didn't feel ignored in Soviet times, I believed I was a real human," he said, cane in hand and clothes stained with dirt. "The orphanage sent me to a special training college where I studied bookkeeping and economics. When I finished, the whole system fell apart and failed me," he said. "Now I can't find a job."
Nichkalyuk said most people are civil to him and some even want to help, but others have negative attitudes toward his disability. "There are some people who try to humiliate me. They continuously call me names," he said. "I try not to let it hurt me though. I want to be emotionally and mentally healthy and show them that I'm just as much a human being as they are."
Mishenko traced such prejudices to the Soviet era. "During the Soviet times there was this image that crippled people were strange. They were often seen as half-human. Many people didn't like them because con-artists would pretend to be crippled in order to get money. This gave the whole handicapped population a negative stereotype."
That image is slowly beginning to change as the number of disabled people grew as a result of the Afghanistan War and the Chernobyl nuclear accidents, according to Polozyuk. "There is no family in Ukraine that does not have someone who is disabled in some sort of way," he said.
Polozyuk said there's even been a few positive signs that officials' attitudes are changing. He said in the last few months, the Kyiv city administration approved a plan to provide specially designed cars for invalids to use. Also, Mercedes recently won a tender to provide the capital with a fleet of minibuses that would be used to transport disabled people around the city.
"A few weeks ago I saw Kyiv Mayor Olexandr Omelchenko and asked him why there weren't more facilities for handicapped people. He said he'd keep that in mind for the future," Polozyuk said.
Nichkalyuk, and other handicapped people, hope that Omelchenko, and other officials, keep their word. "I would love for the government to make proper laws that help the handicapped - laws that help them realize their capabilities," he said. "There are many talented disabled people out there. The government just needs to give us a chance to exercise those talents."