Like many people, I have spent my whole life taking for granted all of the things I am able to do. No matter where I have gone, I have been able to access services and facilities without any problems. In addition, as far back as I can remember, I have seen people with some sort of disability accessing the same services and facilities, with few if any problems. It became a matter of course to see people in wheelchairs, people with sight impairments, hearing impairments, mental impairments, people on crutches, or with other disabilities conducting their daily lives as the rest of us do. I did not really consider it as anything but normal that people with special needs were at the same grocery stores, movie theaters, restaurants, schools, and other places as I was.
The fact that people with disabilities are able to do so easily in the United States is because of the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability in the areas of employment; public services, such as education, medical facilities, transportation and voting booths; public accommodations and commercial facilities, such as stores, hotels, restaurants, recreation areas, theaters and arenas; and telecommunications. What this means in reality, rather than on paper, is that people are able to go to all of the listed areas and participate because of universal design.
With universal design and the ADA (and its subsequent amendments), the United States has once again been a leader in the field of human rights, providing access to people who had previously suffered discrimination. Is it perfect? Of course not. The United States, as a country, is not perfect, but we strive to close the gap when we find discrmination, so that all people are treated equally.
Why am I talking about all this? As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I have the opportunity to participate in working groups, where volunteers work on topics of interest in the country. One of the groups I am in is called the Special Needs Working Group, where we address how to reach people with special needs as well as how to raise awareness of the rights and abilities of people with special needs.
Also, recently, I attended a training with Vika, relating to a project we are taking part in, called “Together We Can Work.” The goal of the project is goal is to promote the right to work of young people with special needs by enhancing the career, social education and social assistance for people with disabilities (see the “All Kirovograd” web site for more information. If you cannot read Ukrainian, Google has a neat function where it will automatically translate the whole page for you).
All of this has been an eye-opener to me. I started paying attention to my surroundings, and realized that I have a hard time walking down the streets and sidewalk here, and I do not have a disability. There are few ramps on sidewalks at the corners of streets, something I am so used to seeing in the U.S.. There are few toilets I have been in where a person in a wheelchair could use the facility. I have been in a number of restaurants in Kirovograd, and only one of them could be accessed by a person in a wheelchair, because it is on street-level, and not accessed by stairs. In buildings, there are often no elevators and no ways for a person in a wheelchair or who has difficulty walking to get up and down the stairs, unless, as I saw over the weekend, the person is carried. A person in a wheelchair also cannot use public transport, which is essential for getting around.
It is not all doom and gloom – I have seen some efforts to integrate people with disabilities. I am seeing initiatives, such as the one I am part of, to raise awareness and opportunities for people with disabilities in Ukraine. Ukraine, as part of the United Nations, took part in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and ratified the related protocol in September 2008. I am seeing a lot of dedicated people doing a lot of work.
Still, it will take time, and the changing of attitudes of many people, to ensure that people with disabilities are given the same opportunities as people who are able-bodied. I hope to see the same progress made in Ukraine and other nations as we have had in the United States. After all, as Hubert Humphrey once said, “It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”