During the 2014 war in Ukraine, Disability Rights International (DRI) conducted an investigation into the situation with the institutionalized children of Ukraine. What they found was extremely unsettling.
Both Ukraine and Russia have some of the highest rates of child institutionalization in the world. The deinstitutionalization reform that took off in the 1980s has been successful in most parts of Europe and North America, and in South Eastern Europe, this reform has been going on for the past 15 years. Nonetheless, high rates of institutionalization still persist in many other parts of the world, especially in those countries that implemented the Soviet doctrine of defectology — or more precisely, the way the Soviets (mis)understood it.
UNICEF estimates that there are 82,000 children living in institutions in Ukraine. Some other NGOs and local advocacy groups quote numbers higher than 200,000. Many of the institutionalized children are vulnerable, coming from a minority group or from poverty. An alarmingly high number of these children are disabled. In these institutions, disabled children are often further segregated, relegated to separate rooms and given the least care. Five years ago, the Ukrainian government adopted an action plan to reform its institutional care system, but there really hasn’t been a true opportunity to conduct it. The DRI’s report has found that during the war, Ukraine’s institutionalized children were at an extremely high risk of further neglect, physical and sexual abuse, exploitation, trafficking, sale of bodily organs, killing and disappearance. Today, when the extent and intensity of war are horribly amplified, these risks become infinitely higher. Furthermore, there are over 1.4 million people already internally displaced due to years of ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The current major escalation will result in even greater displacement, with many children facing an increased risk of institutionalization.
The Russian situation with institutionalization is similar to that in Ukraine and has been equally as grim prior to this war. It is estimated that there are more than 400,000 children living in Russian institutions; 45% of these children are disabled. 95% of all institutionalized children have at least one parent, and were placed there because of similar reasons to those in Ukraine: cultural ableism and systemic pressure for segregation. The same horrible images described in the DRI’s report for Ukraine might as well apply to Russian child residential programs. The sanctions imposed on Russia will almost certainly create serious shortages of food, hygiene products, utilities, medication and staff. These already marginalized and segregated children might be the first to experience the most gruesome effects of the sanctions.
War implies the logic of dehumanization. People caught in or sent into the conflict are reduced to resources, liabilities or depersonalized targets. There are 2.7 million persons with disabilities registered in Ukraine. Those deemed a liability who have been cut off from society, especially those with cognitive disabilities, might be further downgraded, being deemed totally disposable. All disabled people are extremely vulnerable in this current situation: they face a disproportionately high risk of being abandoned, abused, lost or killed, and they may experience a lack of access to safety, relief and emergency care. Safety and evacuation are often particularly hard to achieve, and evacuation centers are usually inaccessible. Some reports coming from the disability community indicate that the situation for disabled people has become appalling. People with intellectual disabilities are especially at risk of being left behind or excluded from government responses and international aid.
In war, the existing modes of dehumanization and ableism become extremely amplified and may stay that way long after it ends. It is therefore imperative to provide targeted assistance and put more focus on the most vulnerable individuals caught in this situation.
The European Disability Forum has published an open letter addressed to the heads of European institutions, European, Russian and Ukrainian heads of state and NATO, urging them to ensure the protection and safety of all disabled persons, especially those in institutions. Since then, many other organizations focusing on people with intellectual disabilities — like the European Down Syndrome Association and Inclusion International — have joined in and published a similar plea.
The UK's Down’s Syndrome Association has set up a fundraising campaign to support children and adults with Down syndrome in Ukraine, the majority of whom are institutionalized and are now under an enormous risk of abandonment.
International Committee of the Red Cross is currently in need of donations, and they have one of the best networks on the ground that can help coordinate other humanitarian organizations.
Even during times of peace, disabled people are often marginalized, and it is very easy to erase them in wartime. The disability discrimination issue is nested within the concentric circles of countless other horrors happening right now — but how we treat the most vulnerable among us defines the true quality of our societies. This crisis calls for us to fully embrace our equal value, mutual dependency and universal interconnectedness. These three are directly opposite to the mentality that causes and reiterates wars.