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14 September, 2013  ▪  Natalka Pozniak-Khomenko

Obstacle Race, or Kyiv by Wheelchair

Despite the government’s assurances of “care”, thousands of people in wheelchairs, as they move around in Kyiv, have to clear numerous obstacles almost imperceptible to the eye but very real for wheels

On 24 July 2013, the Ministry of Infrastructure issued Order No. 411 to solemnly approve the 2012-2016 Programme to Create Proper Conditions for Access of Disabled People to Transport and Road, Tourist and Postal Service Objects.

It was a bit too late, even though one month earlier Ukrainian leaders swore to the European community and the UEFA that comfortable conditions would be created for Euro 2012 fans with disabilities in good time. They showed them seats in stadiums, new buses and trolleybuses with low floors and broadcast cheerful news from airports and hotels.

One year later, the brouhaha over the championship is in the past, and the public has turned to other, more burning issues generously supplied by both life and the mass media. Thousands of people who have found themselves in wheelchairs for life still face the test of having to clear obstacles almost imperceptible to the eye but very real for wheels. Their only other option is to stay cooped up in their flats. Add to this women pushing children in prams and the elderly and the number is several times higher.

A MARATHON IN A WHEELCHAIR

Mykola Podrezan is a very energetic man and a highly authoritative figure among the disabled. He set up his Private Foundation for the Disabled, organized the Miss Ukraine in a Wheelchair and Knight in a Wheelchair competitions, toured cities and villages across Ukraine for information and artistic purposes.

In the past two years, he has been busy with the project “Planet Earth. A view from a wheelchair”. In 2004, he was one of the 120 participants in the Ukrainian stage of the First World Olympic Relay. Now his goal is to tour, with the Olympic flame and a Ukrainian flag, 35 cities of the world in all six continents and thus complete a symbolic marathon race.

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However, this trip has another pragmatic goal: Podrezan has a degree as a construction engineer and wants to study world experience in making cultural monuments accessible to people with disabilities. He plans to hand all of this – with his commentary and recommendations – to the authorities with a categorical demand to stop humiliating people who are only different from healthy individuals in that they have move about in a wheelchair rather than on foot. “My friends call me a courageous person – not only because I am not cooped up indoors and trying to get something done, but also because each time I go abroad, I come back to the Ukraine for which I have boundless love,” Podrezan says. “I find it increasingly difficult to return, because I feel a full-fledged member of society abroad, while here I again become an invalid as soon as I leave the airport. Time is taking its toll on me, and I don’t have increasing amounts of energy to overcome artificial hurdles set by society and the authorities.”

500 METRES OF HUMILIATION FOR PEOPLE IN WHEELCHAIRS

In order to show what these obstacles are, Podrezan offers a tour of downtown Kyiv – Khreshchatyk, Maidan Nezalezhnosti and adjacent streets.

Our itinerary starts from Podrezan’s building in Zankovetska Str. The first obstacle is right in front of the building: a zebra pattern marks a pedestrian crossing, but a very high kerb makes it impossible to get to the other side of the street. “But making a ramp here is a piece of cake,” Podrezan comments.

Then we turn to Pasazh. Podrezan is forced to move in a traffic lane, because the pavement on both sides has similarly high kerbs. None of the cafés here has even managed to install a wooden ramp.

The biggest surprise awais us at the end of Pasazh. There is a ramp leading to the well-known Mother and Child Drugstore, but a huge flower stand blocks passage. “This is like a spit in my face,” Podrezan say. “When they were remodelling the place, I specifically counselled them about making the drugstore accessible to people like myself. And now it turns out that the ramp is there, but in fact it’s not.”

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In order to share our findings, we decide to go straight to the Kyiv City Council and try to obtain an explanation. “It is pointless,” Podrezan stops us. “There is no ramp there and no traffic lights that would permit me to safely cross the street. To get to the administration of my city, I move in a traffic lane and cross the road, violating all rules and risking being run over by a car. But I have no other choice.”

Is there any chance of getting to the other side using an underground passage? We decide to check this option and go to Maidan Nezhalezhnosti. We are happy to see a sign showing a person in a wheelchair which tells us that there is a special lift with a platform. Indeed, the folded platform can be seen down below. However, all attempts to call a person who must help access the platform are fruitless – the box of the voice communication system with a call button is covered with a thick layer of grey paint. Street cleaners working nearby tell us that they have never seen these lifts work.

“Can I help you?” a young man aged around 20 stops by us. A young woman dashes down the stairs to another call button and presses it hard waiting for some reaction. Other passers-by start to look at us and offer help. “But why do I have to bother other people if I can do it on my own if given an opportunity? In the civilized world, it became the norm of life a long time ago, while here the authorities turn a blind eye to everything. People don’t understand how humiliating it is for an adult man to ask for help,” Podrezan says with indignation.

Leaving the intersection of Khreshchatyk and Hododetsky Str., we try to get to the conservatory on Maydan Nezalezhnosti. There is a sloping edge just in the right place, but it is weird: a kerb stone is cut in half. “This is done not for the disabled but to allow easier entry by car,” Podrezan explains. “I can go down this slope in my wheelchair, but there is no way for me to go the other way without help. It is impossible to get on the pavement on the other side.” I notice that there is a neat sloping ramp in front of virtually every arch where cars enter the yard. However, kerbs separate these ramps from the pavement. This means that car owners have done everything to ease access by car, while people in wheelchairs seem to be automatically categorized as vehicles. In civilized countries, they still count as people.

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After finally locating a place where to cross Horodetsky Str. amidst densely packed foreign-made cars, we head for Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Suddenly, a lifting gate blocks passage for us. After two minutes of standing and pulling at the bar, it reluctantly goes up. However, when a Mercedes drives up a minute later, the bar is lifted within seconds.

In Maydan Nezalezhnosti, Podrezan shows another interesting object – the Billa supermarket recently opened in the Globus shopping centre. To get inside the supermarket from Maydan, one needs to clear an entire cascade of stairs, which might be a challenge even for a healthy person. “Look at how our authorities corrupt civilized foreign businessmen,” Podrezan notes. “In Vienna or any other European city, Billa would never obtain a permit to open any supermarket if barrier-free access was not ensured. In contrast, this is not a problem here.”

Equally inaccessible are Kyivstar’s office in Pasazh and a brand clothing store for Olympians nearby, as well as the majority of eateries in the area. “Neither roads, nor ATMs, nor ticket offices are made to accommodate people in wheelchairs. For example, the revamped Olimpiysky Stadium was shown to the public at large before Euro 2012. However, I cannot buy a ticket there on my own – the ticket office is too high for me to reach. In Ukraine, you need to always be accompanied by another person.”

WHAT’S ABROAD?

Podrezan has been to 41 countries of the world, including visits to 31 in a wheelchair. He has painstakingly studied the experience of civilized countries in accommodating people with special needs.

“A person in a wheelchair is a normal phenomenon in the entire civilized world,” he says. “A person spends the first years of his life in a baby carriage, and many elderly people with bad legs get into wheelchairs and continue to have an active lifestyle. An architect recently made a wonderful statement in Oslo: “In the contemporary barrier-free environment, the things that are vital to some must be convenient to everyone!” Everything is designed there so that a person in a wheelchair can manage without help. Ramps or special lifts are installed in museums, theatres, supermarkets and hotels. Most importantly, signs showing directions are everywhere, which makes it easy to get your bearings.”

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Podrezan believes that the absence of signs is another serious problem on the way to a barrier-free environment, even though it is very easy to solve. During our walk along Khreshchatyk, we saw a sign showing a person in a wheelchair only once, and that by an out-of-order lift. “The Khreshchatyk metro station is the only one I can access in Kyiv. Two ramps lead to it, even though they have a high grade and need to be equipped with handrails. But how would I know this if I were not a native of Kyiv? The same goes for the McDonald’s restaurant near the metro station – it can be accessed from the side entrance, but there is no sign and the first thing you see is the high stairs in the front. Low-hanging public telephones were recently installed outside the Central Post Office, but there is no sign there, either,” Podrezan observes.

It appears that the authorities view disabled people and other representatives of low-mobility population groups as an unnecessary burden. The only solution here is to unite efforts and start demanding the things that must a priori be provided from the viewpoint of both the law and human morals.

Incidentally, the first precedent took place on 12 July, when the disabled in wheelchairs cleared all barriers and gathered in front of the Kyiv City State Administration to support one of their own – Oleksandr Pustovoit, the owner of the Dobryi Shliakh enterprise. Despite earlier agreements, the city authorities are taking away his business, which supports his family, creates jobs for the disabled and has enabled Pustovoit to help other disabled people, including children in wheelchairs, for many years.

Podrezan gives an example of an effective joint action in the U.S.: the monument of President Roosevelt in a wheelchair, which was installed in the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington after its official opening thanks to the efforts of disabled Americans, who first protested and then pressured and demanded.

If the authorities fail to react, Podrezan is going to sue officials. “I have no other way to force them to see a human being in myself,” he says.

 

Commentary from Oleh Poloziuk, a lawyer working for the National Assembly of Disabled Ukrainians:

“We do not have a problem with barrier-free environment. We have a problem with officials who fail to enforce the laws of Ukraine. The lifts in the underground passage in Maidan Nezalezhnosti were built in 2010 after the passage was remodelled, but it seems that after the initial demonstration they did not work a single day. Prior to Euro 2012, we monitored the situation and sent a complaint to Oleksandr Popov. However, we were told that this issue was in the competence of Ukravtodor. There they told us they did not have a position of a lift operator. A question arises: Why this show then? Why spend budget money on things that are not going to work? We requested that ramps and traffic lights for people in wheelchairs be installed in Khreshchatyk and have not heard back. The impression is that they [officials] are only interested in projects in which money can be laundered.”


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