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Mariia Nikitina and Zahyst

A grassroots initiative in Chernivtsi is working to change mindsets about disability and provide for a more accessible environment for those with disabilities.

“Our mission is to build an inclusive and democratic society through the development of communities,” says Mariia Nikitina. “This sounds broad and hard to achieve at first; but we believe that by working with many people from different groups, we will succeed.”

Mariia is the head of an NGO ‘Chernivtsi Association Zahyst’, or ‘Protection’ in Ukrainian, based in south-west Ukraine. A wheelchair user herself, she understands the importance of achieving an inclusive transformation in Ukraine.

Together with a team of 11 colleagues and two dozen volunteers, Mariia is developing projects that promote accessibility and target youth in difficult life situations. Zahyst is also working to make Ukrainian society more receptive of disability and diversity.

“The number of people with disabilities is growing very fast due to the war,” Mariia says. “We need to meet our former soldiers with dignity when they return from the war, and we must create the right conditions for them. We want them to know that as servicemen who sacrificed their health for Ukraine, they will be welcomed and accepted in their home communities.”

Accessibility remains an increasingly serious issue across Ukraine, and people with disabilities face a lack of inclusive infrastructure as well as cultural and social barriers.

However, Mariia is more optimistic for the future. “We are seeing results that show some positive transformations,” Mariia says. “Young people are much more open and understanding of disability, and people in general are becoming more aware of what inclusivity means for their communities.”

From pioneering inclusivity across Ukraine to humanitarian relief

In more than 12 years of its existence, Zahyst NGO has implemented a variety of inclusivity-themed projects. Before the Russian full-scale invasion, the team was advising the authorities in Slavutych, a mid-size town in northern Ukraine, on accessible transformation. This was a pilot initiative for Ukraine, aiming to make the city completely inclusive and barrier-free.

“Sadly, due to the full-scale war, this project was put on hold,” Mariia says. “We hope it gets restarted soon, and we also want to help other communities develop their inclusive strategies.”

The full-scale invasion brought other changes to the work of the NGO. In early 2022, the team was working on an ‘ambassadors for inclusive communities’ project, supported by EED. Mariia and her colleagues adjusted this initiative to address new urgent needs due to the war.

“Thanks to EED's understanding and flexibility, we were able to adapt the project to the war situation,” she explains. “We opened a shelter and an access point to provide aid to internally displaced people. We helped 1,769 people, as well as pets, who were rescued from the war zone.”

The shelter provided temporary housing for people fleeing the most dangerous parts of Ukraine, hosting up to thirty people at the same time, providing them with a safe space and a community support.

“We began doing more humanitarian work, helping people with disabilities and providing them with hygiene kits, which were badly needed to those affected by war,” Mariia adds, “In total, we managed to help more than 12,000 individuals.”

Mariia explains that many displaced people chose to stay involved with Zahyst after finding a place to stay there; they became volunteers and now work on other initiatives run by the organisation.

“Many internally displaced people joined our team and are very dear to us,” Mariia says, “We also had people with disabilities joining us, both as volunteers and as employees, which is amazing.”

All the activities organised by Zahyst are inclusive and accessible to all. The team is now working on another EED-supported project called ‘activists in inclusive communities’. It focuses on issues related to environmental consciousness, self-awareness, dignity, and respect, and educates locals on topics like diversity, self-mobilisation, and community transformation.

Enabling more change

“We see important results stemming from our work as we talk about the importance of building a society fit for everyone. Sometimes we see people struggle with some of the concepts we cover, so we hope to be an additional source of knowledge to help them accept diversity around them,” says Mariia.

Today, Ukraine has an estimated nearly three million people with a disability and this number will increase significantly due to the ongoing war. Despite this, many Ukrainians still feel uncomfortable talking about disability and do not know how to behave around people with special needs.

“As a person who uses a wheelchair, I know what it is like to go out on the street and notice people staring or not knowing how to act around you. I’ve had a lot of awkward encounters and questions because of my disability,” relates Maria.

These challenges become even more evident as disabled veterans, such as recent amputees, return to their home cities and face accessibility challenges in civilian life.

“I recently met a soldier who lost both his legs, and he told me how hard it was to adjust to this and to accept himself and his new body,” Mariia explains. “For him, accepting the pity from others was the worst part. He told me that he tried to go outside, but realised that nothing was accessible to him anymore. So while the society’s attitudes are changing, many spaces remain completely closed to people with disabilities.”

“Now is the best moment to implement the strategy for inclusive Ukraine. We are engaging with children, and are organising educational meetings with school authorities and officials where we explain our strategy. We use the inclusivity dictionary to help improve the culture of communication with people with a disability and with society in general. We are also working with our regional government to advise officials on accessibility and transformation.”

Mariia hopes that after the war, it will be possible to rebuild Ukraine in a more inclusive and accessible way – as well as transform local communities through education and other activities that she and her team are implementing.

Thanks to Maria and her colleagues, the authorities in Chernivtsi recently adapted a local Rescue Centre making it accessible to all. The team also provided recommendations on making accessible shelters across the city.

“We want people to understand that accessibility and inclusivity are not privileges, but they improve the comfort of everyone in a community. We will keep on working on this as long as we are needed,” says Maria.

This initiative was supported thanks to the contribution of the Government of Canada to EED.

This article reflects the views of the grantees featured and does not necessarily represent the official opinion of the EED.