“I have never indicated in my CV that I have to use a wheelchair to get around.” Three stories about people with disabilities who have jobs

Photo credits: Anastasiya Vlasova/hromadske for UNDP in Ukraine (Ruslana Shlek returns home from the outpatient clinic where she works.)

There are over 2.5 million people with disabilities in Ukraine, 80 percent of whom are of working age. The law requires employers from state- and privately owned companies to adhere to a 4 percent hiring quota for people with disabilities. The penalty for non-compliance is a fine. In practice, however, this requirement is not met, as confirmed by Social Policy Minister Maryna Lazebna.

Hromadske tells the stories of three persons with disabilities who are professionals, and who go to work every day.

Ruslana Shlek-Kolomina, a masseuse at an outpatient clinic in Chernivtsi

In a small dimly-lit booth, a short woman deftly massages her patient. She quickly runs her small fists along the patient’s back, leaving waves of cream in their wake. The woman wears a white sleeveless robe, and a slightly darker apron. On her feet she has bright pink socks and purple slippers. Her winter boots are under the sink.

Voices coming from a neighbouring booth can sometimes be heard. Ruslana is seldom the first to strike up a conversation with her patients. She works silently.

“She’s the best masseuse I’ve ever had,” says a girl who has just left the room. For Ruslana, that was the last patient for that day. She could handle more people, but because she has a first-group disability, she works part-time. Ruslana is blind.

Photo credits: Anastasiya Vlasova/hromadske for UNDP in Ukraine (Ruslana Shlek, a masseuse at an outpatient clinic in Chernivtsi)

clinic in Chernivtsi

Photo: Anastasiya Vlasova/hromadske

”It took me half a year to get this job. I came and tried to explain to them that I needed this job. I kept saying that I was prepared to work even for a small salary, that I could handle the job, that I don’t want to stay at home”.

This was Ruslana’s first attempt to find a job. And in the end she succeeded — next summer she will have been working at the clinic for seven years.

“I’ve had some patients since I started working, while some other patients have been coming for three to four years. People react in different ways. But I’ve learned to stand up for myself, the work’s hardened me and made me tougher.”

After finishing a Lviv specialized boarding school for the blind, Ruslana did not plan to learn to be a masseuse. She wanted to become a translator from Romanian or German. In 2008, she passed the admission exams and was admitted to Chernivtsi University as an off-campus student.

“It was hard, and I didn’t get help from any teacher. My mother was also of little help. She’s Romanian and has difficulty reading Ukrainian.”

Photo credits: Anastasiya Vlasova/hromadske for UNDP in Ukraine (Ruslana Shlek massages a patient at an outpatient clinic in Chernivtsi)

After the first examination period, Ruslana dropped out of university and started preparing for admission to a medical college that was recruiting visually-impaired students for a therapeutic massage course.

“In the medical college, we were given lectures on a dictaphone, and I summarized them in Braille. This was great, because I was independent from my mother.”

During her first year of study, Ruslana lived in a hostel not far from the college. When she returned from her boarding school, she had difficulty gauging her bearings on the streets, and was afraid to walk around the city on her own.

“I left the boarding school unprepared for life. It’s true that we went for walks, to the theatre, and on outings in the countryside. However, they taught us how to cross the street only near the school, where only single cars would pass.”

Ruslana’s mother taught her routes in Chernivtsi, how to get to the public transport stop, and how to get home. Now Ruslana knows every obstacle on her way to the clinic. She counts stops to get off at the right one. When anything unusual happens, she asks people for help.

“I never know the number of the trolleybus that’s coming. I ask people, but they don’t always reply. I also need to go inside carefully so as not to fall over. If someone helps me, fine; if not, I try to do it by myself.”

Ruslana Shlek returns home from the outpatient clinic where she works. Photo: Anastasiya Vlasova/hromadske A coffee seller usually helps Ruslana near the bus stop where she takes a bus.

If he sees that I can’t find my way and that there are no people around, he takes me to the stop himself.”

Ruslana constantly advises her acquaintances with disabilities to look for jobs, not to stay at home and at least to go to the shop. They get upset at her for that, saying that she wishes them harm. Even Ruslana’s husband works as a “househusband,” as she jokingly calls him.

“My mother has always told me that I need to get an education, a profession, and a job, make my own living, and be around people. But there are few employment opportunities in Chernivtsi. Employers are afraid, and fail to understand that we also need a place in the sun, and that we also need work.”

Photo credits: Anastasiya Vlasova/hromadske for UNDP in Ukraine (Ruslana Shlek returns home from the outpatient clinic where she works.)

A coffee seller usually helps Ruslana near the bus stop where she takes a bus.

If he sees that I can’t find my way and that there are no people around, he takes me to the stop himself.”

Ruslana constantly advises her acquaintances with disabilities to look for jobs, not to stay at home and at least to go to the shop. They get upset at her for that, saying that she wishes them harm. Even Ruslana’s husband works as a “househusband,” as she jokingly calls him.

“My mother has always told me that I need to get an education, a profession, and a job, make my own living, and be around people. But there are few employment opportunities in Chernivtsi. Employers are afraid, and fail to understand that we also need a place in the sun, and that we also need work.”

Photo credits: Anastasiya Vlasova/hromadske for UNDP in Ukraine (Olha Skulska, a specialist in the electronic workflow division in Vinnytsia Oblast State Administration)

“As people say, I work in a document office,” the petite and talkative Olha says of her daily work. “I deal with all of the department’s correspondence. I register letters, of which about a thousand arrive during the day, and pass them on to employees.”

She quickly goes to her department on the first floor, shows a toilet adapted for people with disabilities, and the office she shares with two other colleagues.

“For some reason, employers think that if they hire a person with disabilities, they will have to change everything and expand their office space. But in actual fact it’s not the case. We haven’t changed anything around here.”

Olha deftly enters a small lift, holding onto the door to show the tenth floor where she had first started working. There are no door thresholds or any other obstacles in her path.

Olha is in her second year of working in the Social and Youth Policy Department. Before that, she was working remotely and taking a correspondence course in law at the University of Internal Affairs.

“I dreamed of becoming a surgeon,” Olha said. “But this was impossible, as you surely understand. I had to have extraordinary abilities to be admitted. That is why when I finished the 11th grade, my parents and I decided on the spur of the moment that I’d go into law.”

Olha has had a muscle-skeletal disorder since birth. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer during her pregnancy and gave birth prematurely.

“When my mother gave birth, they asked her to sign a paper that she won’t give me up. She didn’t even understand what was going on. My parents didn’t notice at once that something was wrong with me. And then, I think, they didn’t know what to do with me, and just brought me up like all other parents do.”

Photo credits: Anastasiya Vlasova/hromadske for UNDP in Ukraine (Olha Skulska on her way to work in Vinnytsia Oblast State Administration)

Olha attended school for her first four years of education. Her mother either carried or cycled her to school. The wheelchair Olha received for free was bulky and too big for her.

“Everyone on our street could hear me move along in my wheelchair,” Olha laughs and shows old photos from her childhood with her and her brother sitting in her wheelchair.

When she was in the fifth grade, teachers started coming to her home. A few years later, she started giving lessons to other children and doing homework with them herself. She finished school with a gold medal.

“I had no choice — I had to study. Of course, I had to study! Of course, I had to go to work! My parents and I weren’t considering any other options”.

Olha’s father drove her to university during examination periods. He always waited for her at the university and took her back to her home to the town of Kozyatyn, which is 75 kilometres away from Vinnytsia. During her last year of study, Olha started taking buses to the university.

While she was a student, Olha twice had an internship in Vinnytsia courts, where she was offered a job. But she could not accept these offers because the buildings were unsuitable for people with disabilities.

“Their toilet door was nailed shut. When they finally opened it at my request, I saw the toilet was just a hole in the floor. This is how I had my internship — I held on practically all day. When I couldn’t do it anymore I went to the toilet in the shopping mall nearby.”

While studying at university, she worked as a translator and a call centre operator. When Olha started looking for a full-fledged job, she did not indicate it in her CV that she had a disability and had to use a wheelchair.

“Employers don’t understand what disability I have and what I can do. However, some refusals were well-justified. For example, a dry cleaner’s was willing to take me on, but I couldn’t reach the high shelves there. Another company refused to give me a job because ‘they had no place where I could lie down.”

Photo credits: Anastasiya Vlasova/hromadske for UNDP in Ukraine (Olha Skulska at her desk in the electronic workflow division in Vinnytsia Oblast State Administration)

At that time, the department was looking for a person with disabilities who had a degree in law. Olga had a successful interview and probation period, took her oath, becoming the first civil servant with disabilities in Vinnytsia Oblast, and began an independent life.

At first, Olha’s colleagues tried to help her all the time. They were worried about whether or not it was difficult for her to move from office to office. However, they quickly understood that she could manage by herself.

“They trust me now. When the weather is bad, they sometimes let me work from home. At first, no matter how big the snow drifts were, I had to struggle in to work.”

It takes Olha up to half an hour to get to her work from home. All of the tram drivers know her. They always come out, lower the ramp, and stop where she asks them to. Only once has a tram driver closed the doors on Olha. Other passengers helped Olha get onto the tram, filmed the driver, and submitted a request that she be fired.

“But this happens very seldom. I’m used to thinking that the number of good people who are willing to help is significantly greater than that of bad people.”

Photo credits: Anastasiya Vlasova/hromadske for UNDP in Ukraine (Zhan Tarnavsky, head of a musical group)

Zhan Tarnavsky, a teacher of sign language songs in a Chernivtsi boarding school

A smiling man meets us in a large sun-lit room. Next to a mirror on the wall is a keyboard, and above on the cupboards are some drums. Zhan signs that he does not play the drums. He teaches children with hearing impairments how to sing in sign language.

“I choose songs for children about Ukraine, family and school life. They like to sing them,” Zhan says. His 15-year-old student, Robert, helps us understand each other by interpreting the conversation.

Zhan has been working at a Chernivtsi boarding school for hearing-impaired children for 20 years. After finishing this same school, he temporarily moved from Chernivtsi to Odesa. There, he worked as a caster at a plough factory and a teacher in a hostel.

“The factory was paying me well. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they started to pay less, so Zhan decided to get a university degree. I have loved to sing songs in sign language since I was a child. It allows me to express my feelings and emotions.”

Zhan began studying at Kyiv National University of Culture and Arts, majoring in cultural studies and leisure instruction.

Photo credits: Anastasiya Vlasova/hromadske for UNDP in Ukraine (Zhan Tarnavsky, head of a musical group)

In 1998, he got a job as a musical director at Chernivtsi Oblast House of Culture under the umbrella of the Society of the Deaf. And two years later, when he, together with other graduates, was giving a performance at the boarding school he had attended, the school principal offered him a job. Since then, every day from noon until evening, Zhan has been giving music lessons to boarding school students.

Several tenth-graders, wearing sports uniforms after having a PE lesson, enter the music room and arrange themselves in two lines in front of the mirrors. Zhan turns on a song on the stereo system. As it plays loudly, he turns to face them and begins to artistically perform the song in sign language. The students move in time to the music, repeating the words together after Zhan.

“Even those who have severe hearing impairments can feel the rhythm of the music,” says the principal of the boarding school. “Zhan offers them a song to learn, prints the text out, they learn it and start rehearsing”.

From time to time Zhan’s students give concerts in Chernivtsi, take part in competitions, and win prizes.

In 2013, Zhan received another qualification. He graduated from Drahomanov National Pedagogical University to work professionally with children who have hearing impairments. Recently, he has also started teaching Ukrainian sign language at the boarding school.

Photo credits: Anastasiya Vlasova/hromadske for UNDP in Ukraine (Zhan Tarnavsky with his students)

Zhan admits that it is difficult for hearing-impaired people to find work in Chernivtsi. One option is a work-study plant under the umbrella of the Ukrainian Society of the Deaf that makes clothes for the military. Other companies may refuse to take on people with hearing impairments, because they already have disability pensions.

Things are different abroad, where more care is given to finding employment for people with disabilities. Zhan’s acquaintances recently went to Poland to work as meat packers at a factory.

As soon as the music is over, the students surround the teacher and start talking to him.

You can just talk to him about life and about the graduates of our school whom we also know,” says Maria, a tenth-grader. “He tells us a lot of interesting things, and he understands us.”

Zhan tells his students that they need to get an education, get a job, and that it is up to them to decide what profession to choose. Zhan’s parents, who also have hearing impairments, tried to persuade him to continue the family tradition and repair shoes like they do.

I’m a great art lover. If I hadn’t been hearing impaired, I’d have become a singer,” Zhan said.

The publication is developed as part of the “Inclusive workplaces” project, which is implemented by Zakhyst Chernivtsi Union with support of UNDP “Civil Society for Enhanced Democracy and Human Rights in Ukraine” project with financial support from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Author: Olesya Bida, journalist of the “Reform” project at Hromadske.

Photo: Anastasiya Vlasova, photojournalist.

Translation from Ukrainian: Kristina Zasypkina

You can also read this article in Ukrainian

Originally published at https://undpukraine.medium.com on February 9, 2021.

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