Accessibility and inclusion—alongside inclusive education—are relatively new priorities for Ukrainian policymakers.
By Anna Romandash
It was only after the 2014 Revolution of Dignity that MPs passed relevant laws ensuring a transition towards inclusive education for Ukrainian schools. Since then, disability rights issues started getting more traction among the general public. In the last decade, the Ukrainian society shifted away from Soviet norms, where segregating people with disabilities was a common practice.
In less than ten years, Ukraine made substantial progress toward inclusivity: launching communication campaigns to promote accessibility and enabling more children with special needs to attend regular schools alongside their peers.
Prior to the war, Ukraine’s Education Ministry opened a network of inclusive resource centers, which provided inclusivity-related support to teachers. Schools also hired specialized assistants—such as social workers or parents of kids with special educational needs. The state also approved additional funding to accommodate children with disabilities. Schools could use it to provide correctional and development services and purchase equipment. This helped turn old, Soviet-built schools into more accessible spaces for all students.
However, funding diminished after the Russian invasion, and Ukrainian schools went through a dramatic shortage of experts—as many educators had to flee the country or remain under occupation. Many children, too, became displaced, making matters worse.
Many other inclusivity-related projects were also placed on hold, reversing some of the progress done in Ukraine. This affected not only educational initiatives, but most inclusivity-related projects.
Mariia Nikitina is a human rights activist from Chernivtsi. Together with her NGO Zakhyst, she champions inclusive education and equality in Ukraine.
The team of Zakhyst focuses on bringing inclusivity at the forefront of Ukraine’s reconstruction agenda, cementing inclusive education and accessibility as the norm for post-war rebuilding.
“I am a wheelchair user, so I know what it’s like to go out and get stared at,” says Mariia, “I had a lot of awkward encounters and questions because of my disability—many people don’t know how to act around it.”
“But things are getting better,” she adds, “Especially for kids. Children are more aware and informed of what disability is, and they are more accepting and inclusive. These are positive changes in attitudes toward people with disabilities.”
“Prior to the invasion, we were consulting authorities in Slavutych in northern Ukraine, how to make their town completely inclusive,” Mariia recalls, “That was a pilot project that was supposed to transform Slavutych into the first barrier-free town.”
“Sadly, because of the full-scale war, this project, as well as many other educational initiatives we were doing, did not materialize,” she adds, “We hope they get picked up after the victory.”
Informal education to the rescue
Despite the war, Mariia and her team did not stop. Alongside many other civil society organizations, the activists stepped up their work to intervene where the state was not able to. They expanded their work on inclusive education and are now also helping internally displaced people. The key focus remains on youth—the demographic that is the most vulnerable yet the most responsive toward inclusion.
“We develop a lot of educational projects for young people,” Mariia explains, “All of these are inclusive be design, and they are there to educate people outside of the formal setting about inclusivity in a non-aggressive and non-intrusive way.”
“One great thing we noticed as a consequence of our work is that young people communicate really well among each other despite being different,” she continues, “So a disability in no way prevents young people from exchanging and working well with each other. For example, we organize events on many different topics for children, like teaching them how to make breakfast. We may have a group of 10 kids, all working together, all communicating with one another regardless of whether someone has trouble cooking or not. They help each other, and it’s wonderful to observe this inclusion in practice.”
Zakhyst also works outside of the urban setting, often traveling to rural areas where resources are more limited than in cities.
“It is also interesting to observe how people, who come to our training events, get a portion of non-violent communication about the importance of building society for everyone,” Mariia says, “Sometimes, we see good results, and sometimes, we see people struggle with these concepts.”
“Recently, we organized an event for a hundred employees of educational institutions such as schools, educational departments, and so on from across Chernivtsi Oblast,” she adds, “One participant said that inclusivity was not a priority for now, and it did not affect him. Later, it turned out that the person had a disability, too, but struggled accepting that, so our training was a difficult experience for him.”
“So we hope that through such programs, we give can impart knowledge on how to communicate and feel toward themselves and others,” Mariia continues.
The team is already advising educators in different Ukrainian regions on how to make schools more accessible—both in terms of infrastructure and in terms of language and curriculum, such as using the right terms when speaking about disability.
“Now we have a good opportunity to help implement the strategy for an inclusive Ukraine,” Mariia says, “We work on this by organizing educational meetings where we explain the strategy to the authorities and why it is important to follow it. We also use an inclusivity dictionary, a very cool book that allows improving the culture of communication not only with people with disabilities, but with society in general.”
The activist notes that there is still a lot of work to do. For example, the laws on inclusivity need to be backed by the accessible infrastructure and broader social acceptance toward disability in general. Even though many cities have accessible public transportation, it’s often the drivers who act as the barrier, refusing to accommodate people with disabilities and even insulting them.
“It takes time to accept change, such as the need to be more inclusive,” Mariia says, “We don’t always get the result we want, but we already see positive changes happening. Now is the best time to implement Ukraine’s inclusivity strategy, so people understand that accessibility is not a privilege, but a key to building a society fit for everyone.”
Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine