Ukraine prepares to serve veterans with disabilities

Photo from the personal archive of Liubov Halan. Used with permission

The Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine has continued now for almost two years, and has terrible consequences. Ukrainian experts discuss what measures would be needed for Ukraine to serve its veterans. Liubov Halan is a lawyer and a co-founder of Kyiv-based NGO Pryncyp. Her initiative lobbies for veteran-friendly policies across Ukraine and advocates for inclusion, accessibility, and the greater integration of veterans with disabilities. Global Voices spoke to Liubov about the situation and Pryncyp's work.

By the time the war ends, Ukraine will get around a million and a half veterans. Together with their relatives and loved ones, we’re already talking about three million people. This is a huge number, which is beyond anything comparable across the neighboring countries Many of the returning soldiers have or will have disabilities, so it is crucial we develop a working system to integrate them into civilian life.

Pryncyp was founded in early 2023, when a group of activists, lawyers, and veterans decided to join forces to address systematic problems regarding veterans’ rights. Returning soldiers — including those with disabilities — have been facing many bureaucratic challenges and are often refused services that are guaranteed to them by the law.

Liubov and her team are trying to fix this problem by making sure that Ukraine prepares for a major influx of veterans in the future, so the state can serve the soldiers after the war in an inclusive and transparent way.

Photo from the personal archive of Liubov Halan. Used with permission.

Reaching the limits

Before the full-scale invasion, Ukraine had around 3 million people with disabilities. Due to the war, this number is likely to raise dramatically. Veterans will comprise a large portion within this group, as a consequence of getting wounded on the frontlines.

Ukraine’s army consists of 1 million people, and, as of now, most of the soldiers are either fighting, or getting trained in the rear — so the number of veterans has been relatively small. Yet, the healthcare and legal system are already struggling to serve even the low number of returning soldiers — so many veterans with disabilities experience major challenges when getting treatment or trying to return to the civilian life. Liubov explains:

On paper, the law guarantees a lot of things for the veterans, but the reality is very different. For instance, a veteran-amputee is guaranteed free prosthetics by the state, but practically speaking, it is nearly impossible to get them in Ukraine because there is no capacity to deliver that. Even getting a status of a veteran and a person with disabilities is very hard bureaucracy-wise.

That was the experience of Masi Nayyem, a Ukrainian lawyer and a veteran who came up with the idea of Pryncyp. The man has served with the Ukrainian Armed Forces since 2015. In 2022, he lost his eye after being wounded and returned to Kyiv. As a new veteran and a person with a disability, Nayyem experienced firsthand what it was like to take care of the bureaucratic things as well as get the needed treatment and support from the state.

Nayyem initiated the creation of Pryncyp, which, in less than a year, established open communication with the state on how to serve veterans better. The key aspect of the work is making sure that Ukrainian lawmakers develop new policies that would simplify many procedures for veterans with disabilities, and that the state invests sufficient funds to back up these laws — and delivers the things guaranteed on paper.

Another important objective is reintegrating veterans — especially those with disabilities — into professional life, with initiatives such as creating inclusive and welcoming workspaces across Ukraine. Liubov says:

Our focus is on the veterans with disability, who need information and advocacy of changes on their behalf. Whenever they return from the frontlines, they are faced with a huge gap between the law and the real life. For example, where are all these people going to get employed, especially if they lost a limb or got another wound that prevents them from doing the job they had before the war? This is a huge issue that requires systematic solutions.

Pryncyp launched a rights navigator — a legal tool that explains different bureaucratic mechanisms and provides practical guidance on how to obtain veteran status, apply for prosthetics, and manage other challenges. The navigator is used by veterans as well as care providers and local authorities, helping different groups understand the procedures they have to follow as the influx of veterans is building up.

Inclusivity is key

Ukrainian society has changed dramatically in the last two years, and our team mirrors this change. We’ve got colleagues who are veterans with disabilities, or who have loved ones serving or returning from the war. Many of us accompany our relatives as they navigate their new lives, so we get that practical understanding of what’s missing in the law, healthcare, and other crucial spheres.

My brother recently came back from the frontline. He was serving near Bakhmut, where he got wounded a few months ago. His leg was amputated, so when he is released from the army, he will be one of the people my organization is serving. Going on this journey with him allowed me to see how we can change our work to help veterans with disabilities better.

To address the inclusivity gap, “Pryncyp” is collaborating with other civil society organizations to raise awareness on the lack of barrier-free infrastructure, and the difficulties of getting a job for a person with disability. The team is working alongside a coalition of partners to promote better employment policies where companies retrain potential employees who have a disability, and find accessible positions for them. There are some positive cases here: for example, the state-owned Ukrainian Railways retrains its former employees who became disabled after serving in the army and finds them new jobs within the organization. However, the employment market — just like the healthcare or the legal system — is still ill-prepared to serve all and cannot accommodate most people with disabilities.

We developed the concept of veteran policymaking, where we emphasize that inclusion is a fundamental element for rehabilitation and reintegration of returning soldiers. This means disability-friendly infrastructure, and it also considers the needs of people who are suffering from PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] and so on, like addressing their responses to noise pollution and so on. As per inclusive rehabilitation, we’ve got donors who would be willing to finance that. The important thing is to find enough experts and focus not only on building new rehabilitation centers, but also on training relevant professionals. So the key thing is establishing effective cooperation between the state and donors.

At the moment, many of the veterans with disabilities are helped by volunteers and private organizations, which raise funds for relevant treatments, help with getting medical aid abroad, and provide short-term support after release from the army. However, when the war ends, and millions of people with disabilities will have to reintegrate into the civilian life in Ukraine, they will need a continuous presence and support from the state, making it necessary to adapt the laws and prepare the infrastructure for this now.

The most obvious thing is to ensure that the state is capable to provide high-quality services to wounded veterans. This will require all state institutions to be inclusive, and their practices to be transparent. This will also take some pressure off the families of the veterans with disabilities, who are now responsible for accompanying their partners in this difficult bureaucratic journey. The key is to serve better in the long run.

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