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«I don’t want to be a decoration»: the woman activist with disabilities about the political participation of women

We had a talk with Maryna Stashyna-Neimet, the leading expert of the Center of Innovations and development of the Uzhgorod national university and the regional representative of the Ukrainian Women’s Congress in Zakarpattia region, about challenges for women with disabilities, informational and digital accessibility, the meaning of involving women with disabilities by local political parties, about “smart adjusting”, the Accessibility Strategy and the complexity of the word “euro-integration”.

About multiple discrimination of women

The rights of women are extremely important for me because I suffered from multiple discrimination myself – as a woman and because I am from Eastern Ukraine. I was born in Stanytsia Luhanska, although I do not have the status of an internally displaced person. In addition, I have partial sight, so I have the status of the person with a disability.

As I needed to stand for my personal rights, it engaged me to learn more about the complex defense of one’s rights. I also want women with disabilities to become visible in society. This topic is worth a discussion, and the rights of women with disabilities must be considered in the context of the general movement for women’s rights in Ukraine. All those things led me to the moment when I joined the Ukrainian Women’s Congress.

About specific challenges for women with disabilities in Ukraine

If we talk about physical access, so there are different types of inaccessibility: architectural, transport, infrastructural. There are different disabilities, and some women can never come to some administrative buildings because there are no ramps or experience any other obstacles due to the lack of tactile lines and tactile directions.

Obstacles can also be caused by the lack of light or informational signs on necessary distance from the floor described in a state building standard “The inclusiveness of buildings”.

When the quarantine started, we faced another challenge: digital and informational inaccessibility. I mean special options for screen access. On the other hand, there is a major problem of the lack of digital knowledge and understanding among people with eye and ear disabilities.

And one more thing: Ukraine has issues with internet connection in smaller cities or villages, and when we talk about Zakarpattia for example, where there are many mountain regions, some territories do not even have access to cell phone communication, so qualitative digital communication is totally impossible.

We also need to pay attention to correct terminology. When we talk about people with disabilities, we need to remember that this is a person. That’s why we need to say “people with disabilities”. When you need to talk about a specific type of disability, you may use a person with an eye, an ear or spine disability, person in a wheelchair. This helps to highlight that the first thing we see about a person is they being human and only after that we see their disabilities.

About the reasons of the absence of women with disabilities in Ukrainian politics

There are almost no women with visible disabilities in Ukrainian politics. The only person one can think of is the deputy of Petro Poroshenko Block Yana Zinkevych – she is in a wheelchair.

In general, the problems of people with disabilities had not been attempted to be solved for the last 30 years. And if we also consider the regional dimension of the women’s presence in parliament, we could see that, for example, my native Zakarpattia region had always have a low presence in parliament. And we talk about all the Verkhovna Rada’s convocations along with the current one.

What can we do about that? First, parties themselves must understand that woman is a human no matter whether she has any disabilities or not. When we talk about disabilities in our country, those are often associations only with ramps or lowering sideways but there comes not a word about more important aspects that could make the life of women with disabilities and women in general easier.

A woman can be a deputy of the regional council or Verkhovna Rada and have a baby. She must have the right to come with this child to her place of work. This is a normal situation, and we have few examples in which female politicians try to implement those principles. But by the moment it is still not very widely used practice.

On the other side, we need to understand that even if women with disabilities may need a special approach in understanding different types of information that does not mean that they are not able to express their attitude and thoughts on any topic or produce ideas for real changes. Those women could also improve the level of women’s political participation of women social involvement and the level of the economic welfare of both women and men. And for this purpose, we need a big informational campaign.

About the analysis of local elections and accessibility

I was an analytic of Public holding “The group of influence” in autumn of 2020, when our country was preparing for the local elections in Ukraine. During the project “Affordable Elections” we analyzed the accessibility of political parties. We took five political parties as a basis, but they had to be represented in parliament. Also, we took one party in each region that is the leader among other local parties in terms of ratings. And here are the conclusions we came to.

As it comes from their programs, political parties have no qualitative understanding of the idea of who are people with disabilities, what are their needs, and how they could be satisfied. Political parties provide their rhetoric in social networks and official websites in forms unavailable for people with disabilities.

And we mention that there is no descriptions of photos or typhlocomments to videos or subtitles or even translations to the Ukrainian gesture language. We talk about the text itself.

Let’s take the word “euro integration”, for example. If you are politically and socially active, so this word is familiar and clear for you. But let’s imagine that this word is read by a woman from a small village who lived a life on a flower farm. Sure, she could have heard this word before, but the meaning can be unfamiliar.

Another significant informational obstacle is the length of sentences produced not only by political parties but also by mass media. There can be up to 45-47 words in a sentence. So, by the moment you reach the end of the phrase you forget what it was started with.

Just imagine a woman with a disability and some mental dysfunctions – she does not understand these sentences. She can also be legally capable and have the right to vote. She will barely make conscious decisions and apparently will be influenced by political agitation in her environment.

About growing women’s political participation and the fundamental “Nothing for us without us”

If we talk about increasing the number of women of disabilities in politics we should consider the representativeness, including nosology.

Particularly, disability is a piece of confidential information and some people do not want or afraid to talk about it. But if we do want to increase the level of employment we must take “smart adjusting” into account and try to adjust every workplace for a woman or a man with disabilities.

But this adjustment will be totally different for a woman with a partial sight like me, or a woman in a wheelchair, or one with hearing loss.

We need to involve women politicians who face these challenges every day. It is vital to form a clear and high-quality understanding of “smart adjusting”, the ways to detect the needs, and to act in the name of human comfort without needless highlighting our special achievements in arranging workplaces for people with disabilities.

This is the fundamental principle “nothing for us without us”. The Verkhovna Rada itself is not the sample of accessibility. 11 years ago when I had an internship in one of the parliament’s committees at 3a Sadova st. I didn’t feel the accessibility. And I’m not sure anything had changed by this time despite all the state constructing standards which are obviously often ignored.

3 steps for political parties to become inclusive

The first step is to understand the legal basis and realize the concept of inclusiveness. Because it is not only about education for people with disabilities and constructing ramps.

The second step is to find active women with disabilities in different regions. Obviously not every woman will be ready for political activities and run the elections to the parliament or regional or local councils. But they can impact the decision-making from the positions of consultants.

The third step is a real but not formal involvement of women with disabilities. It is a logical consequence of two precious steps, Women must be able to be heard with their proposals and during the discussions, be able to represent their ideas in media. They need not worry about their thoughts that could be unconsidered, about criticism. For we need to remember that changes should be implemented – not only discussed.

If I can talk about my political participation, I want to be qualitatively involved. But the situation during the local election was not happening this way. Some parties wanted only to fit the quota that’s why they looked for women. But I don’t want to be a decoration. If the party wants me in and represent a particular group of women, I want my voice to be heard.

It is especially important that women with disabilities were active on a local level in defending the rights of this category of people if they want to be politically active.

For example, the public holding “The Group of Influence” is leading the project “Defense of rights of people with disabilities on a local level”. During this project, 10 groups all over Ukraine implement their advocacy campaigns. Our group in Uzhgorod works on improving the accessibility of polling stations and implementing the Accessibility Strategy.