Recently, I stumbled over an article on the BBC News’ global website: Ukraine’s Paralympic success: What’s the secret? In the article, Ben Sutherland writes, “There is one country that, while producing its worst ever performance at the Rio Olympics… becomes a world superpower once the Paralympics start – Ukraine.” Sutherland labels Ukraine’s performance as “particularly astonishing given the country’s recent history, with an economic crisis, war in the east and the loss of their main training center in Crimea.”
In the official medal count, Ukraine is in third place topped only by China and the United Kingdom, ahead of the United States and Australia. Compared to its population size, the success of Ukraine with less than 50 million inhabitants is all the more remarkable.
“In Ukraine we have set up the best system of physical education, sport and rehabilitation for people with disability,” Ukraine’s Paralympic chief, Valeriy Sushkevych, told the BBC, adding that “there is infrastructure in all regions of Ukraine, with schools for children with disabilities. This system works and brings results. “
As a Ukrainian, I feel joy and pride for the achievements of the Ukrainian athletes, but I also wonder: Do the extraordinary achievements of Ukrainian Paralympic athletes reflect the realities of all children and people with disabilities in Ukraine? What are we doing for children with disabilities, and what else can we do?
Ukraine has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Yet children with disabilities rank among the most vulnerable groups in society in the world—and this is true in Ukraine as well. A 2015 UNICEF report, Situation Analysis of Children in the Ukraine, states that 168,280 children were registered with a disability in Ukraine at the beginning of 2014, amounting to 2.1 percent of the total child population (p. 52). Registration totals may not represent all children with disabilities. For example, another UNICEF report, The State of the World’s Children 2013: Children with Disabilities, refers to a rough estimate of 5 percent of the world’s children aged fourteen or younger as living with moderate or severe disabilities (p. 3) and devotes a chapter to the difficulties of capturing data about child disability, including differing definitions and the effects of stigma (p. 63-71).
Many of the children with disabilities still reside in institutions in Ukraine. These children are deprived of the right to grow up in a family environment. They are also more vulnerable to violence, abuse, and discrimination than their peers – with or without disabilities – who grow up in a family environment. Children with disabilities often do not have access to regular school education and/or medical services. The ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine puts children with disabilities in that region even more at risk.
So what can we do about it? For one, we can work on supporting programs like “Invasport,” a state-based network of athletic facilities throughout the country that helps children with disabilities realize their athletic potential. But we also need to focus on creating comprehensive preventive and early intervention services across the board that help to minimize and, in some cases, even prevent development delays among young children.
In partnership with civil society, UNICEF supports Ukraine’s national efforts to increase the capacities of early intervention services for children with disabilities. At the policy level, the initiative identifies best practices and lessons learned, all of which will feed into building the country’s overall early intervention strategy. More than 10,000 children and caregivers in Eastern Ukraine are currently being trained in early intervention techniques and early monitoring methods to enable them to identify at-risk children and provide them with counsel in order to help prevent long-term negative effects.
Finally, UNICEF and partners focus on supporting the mobilization of parents to influence community perceptions of children with disabilities and advance knowledge about the value and availability of early intervention services. At the same time, UNICEF advocates for social inclusion and provision of better opportunities for children with disabilities in Ukraine. All of these endeavors help to increase public education and lessen stigma.
In this effort, we should work with some of the outstanding athletes from the Rio Paralympics and remind the country of Ukraine about their successes in sports and in life. These athletes are true champions and the medals they won not only represent their speed, their strength, and their determination. The medals represent their ability (did you recognize that there is no “dis” in front of “ability”?) to overcome obstacles in society, like social exclusion, and infrastructural problems, and neglect – obstacles that people with disabilities have to confront in everyday life.
An example of a champion in sports (and in life) is Oleksandr. Oleksandr, a 15-year-old boy, is also a filmmaker, having participated in a UNICEF-supported One Minutes Jr. workshop for children with disabilities in Lviv in 2014. He tells his personal story in his film “Two Bronze Medals,” which can be watched here.
Maybe one day Oleksandr will also become one of the Paralympic medalists who make all of us Ukrainians proud. Having said that, he already makes me proud today.
Ruslana Sirman is a 2016 G. Barrie Landry Fellow at the Harvard FXB Center, where she is pursuing a certificate in child protection through the Harvard-UNICEF Child Protection Certificate Program.
Photo courtesy of UNICEF CEECIS. “Two Bronze Medals” is a OneMinutesJr video produced by Oleksandr Chihichin (15) at a UNICEF-supported workshop in Lviv, Ukraine (October 2014).