A BBC News investigation, Locked Away: Ukraine’s Stolen Lives, has exposed the abuse and neglect of disabled people locked away in institutions across Ukraine.
The investigation, led by reporter Dan Johnson, found that more than 100,000 children and young people are living in these institutions across the country, many of whom are trapped in beds or tied to furniture for the majority of the day.
“They are not treated as human beings, they are only kept alive”
The director of one of the institutions, Vasyl Markulin, explains that when the war began, care and support workers fled the country and left providers without any staff to look after the children.
Halyna Kurylo, a human rights investigator at Disability Rights International, says the staff who remain often hugely underestimate the intellectual abilities of the children in their care and do not provide any form of stimulation or activity.
“Because of their disabilities, they are not treated as human beings, they are only kept alive,” Ms Kurylo said. “Human dignity is undermined here,” she added.
So far, international funding has provided things like food, water and equipment for these institutions, but there has been no progress towards improving lives.
“It’s easy to place a washing machine into a group setting and say … ‘we helped’, rather than thinking about how we can make the lives of these children better … We need to think about how we can help children to reach their full potential both physically and mentally,” said Ms Kurylo.
‘Ukraine should not be allowed to join the EU until it abolishes its care system’
In some institutions, the children and young adults are visibly malnourished. But Eric Rosenthal, Executive director of Disability Rights International, says that many children with disabilities in Ukraine have been subject to malnutrition over a lifetime, not just since the start of the war.
Indeed, this culture of institutionalisation, abuse and neglect towards disabled people long predates Russia’s invasion and is a result of an outdated, Soviet system, according to Mr Johnson.
It is evident that Ukraine’s care system is stuck in the past. Now, there is a need for a shift in mindset, away from dehumanising and condemning disabled people and towards seeing them as active members of society.
Now that Ukraine is a candidate to join the European Union, Mr Rosenthal says the state will have to work hard to abolish the current system of care. He said: “It’s intolerable, if Ukraine wants to be part of the Western world, a law-abiding democracy, it can’t write off children with disabilities, they’re part of the picture. You can’t have democracy without basic human rights for your most vulnerable citizens”.
To watch Locked Away: Ukraine’s Stolen Lives, click here.