Just a year ago, Anna Landre was advocating for the needs of D.C. residents as a neighborhood advisory commissioner.
“People with disabilities all over the country have been held hostage to their disability — we do not have access to shelter, we cannot get food and water, we need medicine,” reads a recent message that was received from a couple in Ukraine who use wheelchairs. “Now we are in a city where there is a humanitarian catastrophe!!!”
They describe their house coming under direct fire from a tank and their home no longer offering warmth, water or light.
“I never paid attention to my disability, but now this fact has become crucial in my ability to survive,” their message reads. “Save people with disabilities and children!!!! … We have no chance without help.”
We have no chance without help. Those words are haunting. The reality is more so. Ukraine has an estimated 2.7 million people with disabilities and many are now in regions where dangers are growing and resources are dwindling.
The images of people fleeing Ukraine after Russia’s invasion have been dramatic and heartbreaking. But it’s what is not being seen — it’s the people with disabilities who aren’t in those cars driving away from familiar cities or in those lines walking toward new borders — that has Landre and other disability rights advocates worried and working tirelessly.
“We already know that people in institutions are running out of food and lacking the care they need to survive,” Landre says. “And we have several cases of people who are not institutionalized who we are no longer hearing from because they weren’t able to find accessible evacuation services before their cities were occupied by the Russians.”
I first told you about Landre when she was a student at Georgetown University and neighborhood advisory commissioner in Ward 2. Now a graduate, the 23-year-old didn’t expect to end up on the front lines of Ukrainian’s evacuation efforts. As she tells it, she was working toward getting her master’s degree at the London School of Economics when she noticed a social media post from the Ukrainian disability rights organization Fight for Right asking for assistance with evacuations. Landre reached out to the U.S.-based organization the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, where she had worked, to ask if they would be willing to help. Even though the organization’s focus is on natural disasters rather than conflict zones, she says, they agreed without hesitation.
Landre figured the work would involve a few days of creating connections between humanitarian organizations and people leading the Ukrainian effort. But she and other volunteers soon realized that if they didn’t respond to the requests for help that were coming in, no one else would. They learned, Landre says, that help was not going to come from larger, more established humanitarian organizations.
“We’ve been told repeatedly that either they’re not doing evacuations at all or that they cannot evacuate people with these needs,” Landre says. “That’s repeatedly what we keep hearing — with these needs — which essentially means disabled people.”
She describes that as “infuriating” but not surprising.
“What we’ve seen is that the humanitarian field often completely ignores evacuations because they assume if something bad happens and you want to leave, you will,” she says. “There’s no acknowledgment that there’s a large amount of people who can’t leave.”
On Wednesday, Landre tweeted: “ … we have 100 disabled children in an institution in Kherson who are running out of food and medical supplies. Dire situation — any assistance would be appreciated.”
Families with members unable to travel because of medical conditions have also faced once-unthinkable decisions. The Washington Post recently covered the story of an 11-year-old boy who fled Ukraine alone with only a plastic bag, a passport and a telephone number written on his hand. Within that article was this line: “In a tearful video shared by Slovak authorities, the boy’s mother, Yulia Pisetskaya, said she was a widow and was unable to leave their home in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region because she was caring for her mother, who could not move on her own.”
Landre says she knows of a similar case. In that one, a woman couldn’t leave her elderly mother, so she kissed her daughter goodbye and sent her to a bomb shelter.
Yuliia Sachuk, the head of Fight for Right, says the members of her organization and the international volunteers who have joined their effort are all people with disabilities and they have been working on their own, with money people have donated through a GoFundMe page. She describes the effort as an example of how “even in the worst situations, when you believe in you, believe in your community, you can create opportunities for people to survive.” But she also recognizes that the resources they have are “not enough” to help everyone.
“[I] and all of us in our teams continue to receive, day by day, requests for help,” she says. “We continue to receive messages from people who believe they don’t have chances to survive. The most terrible messages to receive are when people want to say goodbye.”
Those messages, she says, have come from strangers and people she knows in Ukraine. “This is my community, family, friends,” she says. “This is my life.”
Sachuk ended up in a bomb shelter before fleeing the country. Her husband stayed behind to fight and she has other relatives who remain there.
People with disabilities who have managed to cross into other countries also need assistance at their destinations, and Sachuk’s organization, along with the international volunteers, has been trying to provide that. Landre says some of that work has involved getting them accessible transportation from border crossings and accessible housing within those countries.
Landre, who uses a wheelchair, says she hopes more people will recognize what’s happening in Ukraine and offer help. The crisis may be taking place in that country, but the pleas are a global concern. She has learned that through her studies and through what she has witnessed in recent weeks.
“As someone who works in disability and disaster, it's always been clear to me that I am in a dangerous position if I ever do get caught in a disaster,” she says. “But I think working on this so closely, it’s so much more vivid to me what I would be facing.”
She says if London, where she now lives, became the site of a natural disaster or war zone, she doesn’t have confidence that a humanitarian organization would help her.
Instead, Landre says, “I think I would also be left to the wayside.”