Q&A with Valeriy Sushkevych, Presidential Commissioner for Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Ukraine

Updated: May 2016
Commissioner Valeriya Sushkeyvych signs a banner supporting participation of persons with disabilities in political life.

You were the first person appointed as the Commissioner for rights of persons with disabilities in Ukraine. How the creation of this position has changed the access of persons with disabilities to the political process?

 

The Office of the Presidential Commissioner for Rights of Persons with Disabilities was established under the Decree of the President of Ukraine No. 902 dated 1 December 2014. I am really the first person who was appointed to this position in accordance with the Decree of the President of Ukraine No. 911 dated 3 December 2014. That was the day when the entire international community celebrated the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

 

The Presidential Commissioner for Rights of Persons with Disabilities provides for the implementation by the President of Ukraine of the constitutional powers to ensure the rights and legitimate interests of persons with disabilities, including those who have obtained their disability in the area of the anti-terrorist operations and war.

 

The main tasks of the Presidential Commissioner for Rights of Persons with Disabilities are, in particular, the compliance monitoring of the rights and legitimate interests of persons with disabilities in Ukraine, Ukraine’s implementation of the international obligations in this area, filing the proposals to the President of Ukraine on elimination of obstacles and barriers impeding on the rights and needs of persons with disabilities, prevention of restrictions and violation of legitimate interests of such persons, cooperation with authorities on relevant issues, and the participation in the development of the legal instruments.

 

It took us not so long to establish a comprehensive, systemic work in this field.

 

An important factor in this regard is the implementation of the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). That is why I, along with representatives of NGOs uniting persons with disabilities, took part in the 14th session of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD Committee) that was held in Geneva in August – September 2015, which considered the first report of Ukraine on the implementation of the CRPD.

 

I was very disappointed with the Government representative’s statement that was an “unreliable” presentation on the “excellent” status of progress with ensuring the rights of persons with disabilities and their social security, including their participation in the political and public life.

 

As a result of our work, the CRPD Committee has provided specific recommendations to Ukraine, including those with regard to the access of persons with disabilities to elections, in particular, the UN Committee has recommended Ukraine to amend the relevant legislation so that people with disabilities can exercise their right to vote and be elected, regardless of the custodianship or other modes, as well as to ensure, through legislative or other measures, the accessibility of ballots, election materials and polling stations.  

 

The Constitution of Ukraine guarantees for the citizens of our country free expression in elections to the state and local government bodies, the practical implementation of which is governed by the respective legislation. However, when it comes to voters with disabilities, in my opinion, in Ukraine there are significant limitations of rights of citizens with disabilities both in the voting procedure as well as in the possibility of nominating a candidate for election offices.

 

Using the Concluding Observations of the CRPD Committee, I, along with my team, have submitted our proposals regarding the actions to be taken to create conditions for ensuring the electoral rights of persons with disabilities, to the chapter “Expected Results” for the strategic direction “Ensuring the right to participate in public affairs and elections” of the National Strategy for Human Rights approved by the Decree of President of Ukraine No. 501 dated 25 August 2015.

 

 I and my team took part in five working groups established under the Ministry of Justice, to develop the Action Plan to implement the National Strategy in the field of human rights. We have proposed more than 100 measures to this Plan to facilitate the implementation by persons with disabilities of rights and fundamental freedoms in all spheres of life, including those regarding the access of people with disabilities to elections.

 

The absolute majority of these proposals were included in the Action Plan to implement the National Strategy on human rights for the period until 2020, approved by the Resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers No. 1393-r dated 23 November 2015. Among them there are tasks till the end of 2016, as follows:

 

  • To study the international experience to ensure the voting rights for incapacitated citizens (persons), taking into account the specificity of the institute of legal incapacitation and to submit to the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine the proposals upon the results of this analysis;
     
  • Develop changes to the legislation on elections and referendums to create conditions to ensure the rights of persons with disabilities.
     

In addition to it, in order to improve the situation with the implementation in Ukraine of the provisions of the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities and the Concluding Observations of the CRPD Committee in relation to the initial report of Ukraine on implementation of the UN Convention of the rights of persons with disabilities, I took over the coordination of work regarding processing proposals on amendments to some laws of Ukraine to improve the access to information for persons with hearing impairments. For this reason I have involved NGO “National Assembly of Disabled of Ukraine”, National Committee for Disabled Sports, Ukrainian Non-Governmental Association of Disabled “Ukrainian Society of the Deaf”, Council of Sign Language Interpreters of Kyiv organization of the Ukrainian Society of the Deaf, the Sign Language Laboratory of the Institute of Special Education of the National Academy of Pedagogical Sciences of Ukraine, to process such proposals.

 

The result of this work was the addition of the Law of Ukraine “On Amendments to Some Laws of Ukraine regarding Improving Access to Information for Persons with Hearing Impairments”, which proposed to make changes to the Laws of Ukraine “On the Basis of Social Protection of Disabled in Ukraine”, “On Principles of State Language Policy”, “On the National Council of Ukraine on Television and Radio Broadcasting”, “On Television and Radio”, “On Public Television and Radio Broadcasting”, “On Cinematography”, “On Advertising”, “On Elections of President of Ukraine”, “On Elections of Members of Parliament of Ukraine”, “On Local Elections”, and “On Ukrainian Referendum”. These proposals were sent to the State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting and supported by the latter. This draft bill is now at the Ministry of Justice undergoing the legal expertise.

 

In this draft bill we have worked out the rules binding for all broadcasters to ensure the content adaptation for the persons with hearing impairments by translating it into the Ukrainian sign language and/or subtitling all official announcements, including speeches of top government officials of the country as well as the emergency information, social and political advertising, as well as other TV products in the amount of minimum 10% by 2017, 20% by 2018 and 50% by/from 2020.

 

In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge to providing access for people with disabilities to the electoral process in Ukraine and what steps would you consider necessary to solve this problem?

 

We have a considerable gap between the declared right to elect and be elected and its implementation. The passiveness of the state in overcoming this gap, lack of the political will in the Parliament, election offices, all that is a violation of the rights of persons with disabilities, discrimination against these people… Therefore we can make a conclusion that the government elected without participation of persons with disabilities is a continued discrimination of citizens with disabilities.

 

Total barriers are the main characteristics of the electoral process in Ukraine with regard to persons with disabilities. Starting with legislative provisions that are in conflict with the CRPD, ending with architectural, informational and other types of obstacles in the implementation of the electoral rights… voters with disabilities are limited to voting at home; they can do that with great difficulties at the polling stations. However, according to my estimate, about a million of these people, if not more, do not participate in the elections.

 

Polling stations should meet all the requirements of accessibility and be universal, but, in fact, in most of them there are barriers. Architectural accessibility problems may often occur also in the area adjacent to a polling station. If there is an access to the premises, barriers may often occur inside. In many cases the polling station may be located on the second floor, whereas the building may not be equipped with an elevator. An inconvenient location of a polling station, without due consideration of the width of corridors, area of premises, lights and so on, may also be a problem. In addition to it, there is no aid at the entrance; there are no people to accompany those who came to vote.

 

In fact, the procedure is not defined by law for voters who are blind.

 

I am concerned that voters with visual disabilities have a disadvantage compared to others in terms of their access to information about candidates and their programs. If during the campaigning process some voters can make their own efforts to obtain information in the audio format using computer technology and in the Internet, it is actually not possible to find information on candidates in the scope prescribed by law at the polling station during the voting. In particular, the state does not provide, for example, such methods of providing information, as the use of materials in braille, instruments to magnify the text or such that would provide information in the audio format.

 

People with hearing disabilities are faced with similar barriers. A lack of translation into sign language in the process of dissemination of information on candidates and their programs, including pre-election debates broadcast on television or through the Internet resources in the video format, creates obstacles.

 

At the stage of voting the same problems are encountered during voting at home: voters with disabilities have no possibility to get the information on candidates and their programs in the scope prescribed by law, and they complaint for the shortage of information.

 

Also, during home voting people with disabilities may come across the following obstacles: quite often they have to wait for a long time for election commission members that causes significant inconvenience. They may have some concerns relating to strangers coming into their house. In addition to it, people with disabilities note that there is a violation of secrecy of ballot with this type of voting. So, in this regard, there is a need to provide for alternative methods of voting, such as voting by mail or Internet.

 

I must mention one more situation used by political leaders of Ukraine with regard to voters with disabilities that is quite cynical. They use millions of voters with disabilities as an object of manipulation during the vote, using cynical electoral technologies. This is particularly disturbing to me.

 

This is related, in my opinion, to difficulties with the implementation of accessible elections for citizens with disabilities.

 

There are many problems for people with disabilities not only relating to their implementation of the right to vote for a chosen candidate, but also their right to be elected…

 

You previously worked as a Member of Parliament. What can you tell us about your experience as a politician with disabilities?

 

As a young, 20-years-old man, I participated in sports for people with disabilities and civil society activities in Dnipropetrovsk. At that time I was a member of the sports club “Optimist”. The name of the club was symbolic because in those days for people with disabilities it was difficult to be optimistic.

 

I started increasingly feel the need to do something useful for people with disabilities and for people who were in difficult situations. Fairly soon I realized that in order to achieve something, you must have an impact on [those in power]. However, at that time it was the Soviet regime, and the citizens with disabilities merely did not exist for that power. The government limited its actions to providing a certain level of pension. In the former Soviet and post-Soviet society they tried to avoid the presence of persons with disabilities in public, because the government then believed that the people in the wheelchairs, blind, deaf etc. have no place in such a ‘beautiful’ system.

 

I tried to cooperate with the authorities of Dnepropetrovsk. It was a very difficult area for such activities. A large number of military bases, missile facilities, including the most strategic ones, nuclear missile facilities – all of them abided by the military laws (rules). It was extremely difficult to solve the issue of people with disabilities. However, I did not give up. I was trying to engage civil society groups to work towards a system of support for people with disabilities, and they, respectively, delegated to me the communication with authorities. The result of my assiduous work came later, after a few years.

 

I received the first proposal to participate in the elections to the regional council in 1996. It was an unusual situation – a person in a wheelchair competed in political elections. The Soviet Union, as well as the post-communist Ukraine, has not seen any of that before. They were trying to convince me that I should calm down as I had no chance to win the elections. However, I went for elections feeling the support of people. My election team at that time was only three of my colleagues from my civil society background. From all the equipment we had only an old camera. We did not even have a typewriter to type leaflets. But we worked and we knew that we were doing that in order to protect the rights of people. To the surprise of many of my opponents, I went to the second round in the elections of the regional council members, having the deputy mayor of Dnipropetrovsk as my contender. And we got the first victory in the elections – I became a member of the regional council.

 

I started writing draft decisions and resolutions relating to changes in lives of people with disabilities. I patiently explained for everybody that you need to change something regarding this category of people. Finally, I dared to submit the first draft decision of the regional council on social protection of people with disabilities. I was expelled from there. I did not give up. Finally I managed to convince members of Dnipropetrovsk city council and 2/3 of my proposals submitted as draft decisions of the regional council on social protection and rights of persons with disabilities were supported by them.

 

An interesting fact happened to me 16 years ago, when I won the elections to the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine. I remember my first day in Kyiv. I arrived in a wheelchair to the main entrance of the Parliament, The police that were guarding the entrance closed the door before me. They asked me where I wanted to go? They said go away. I showed my MP’s credentials. But that did not convince them. I was not let in.

 

- It is not possible, - said the police. Wait, we have to find out, - after all I heard this from the police.

 

The police officers called the head of the security with the questions – what should they do? Some disabled person in a wheelchair says he is a member of Parliament. And they were very surprised when, finally, they had to let me in the Verkhovna Rada. It was a typical post-Soviet behavior. Then the people with disabilities had no rights. And then, suddenly, a member of Parliament in a wheelchair! That did not fit into their heads. But not only had the police reacted in this way. For the post-Soviet Ukraine I, as a person with disability, did not exist, as a member of the Ukrainian Parliament…

 

But today, after a continuous non-stop work in the parliament I am always recognized for the fact of my parliamentary and government activities that took place in recent years in the Parliament, the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine and the Administration of President of Ukraine.

 

During the time of my work in the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine the Parliament building and the premises where separate committees are located became more accessible. But the main thing is that I have written more than 130 draft laws aiming at promotion of rights and improvement of the lives of persons with disabilities.

 

Three out of these draft bills that were registered by myself in 2004, 2006 and 2011, were relating to the access to elections for persons with disabilities. These draft bills proposed changes to legislation in terms of providing guarantees of accessibility to the electoral process at all of its stages (from campaigning to voting) for voters with special needs (with musculoskeletal system disorders, visual disabilities, hearing disabilities, and other limited mobility groups of voters), as well as on voting at home (including at the nursing homes), making braille stencils, physical accessibility of polling stations, campaigning with due consideration of needs of people with disabilities, introduction a concept of trustee of a person with 1st group disability (visual disabilities).

 

Parliamentary politicians and, in fact, all government officials, are reluctant to let the access to a citizen with disability to the political life of the country, to the formation of the Ukrainian government.

 

What role do you think civil society plays in increasing the discourse on the right of persons with disabilities to participate in the political life in Ukraine?

 

Civil society organizations of people with disabilities and their associations are the driving force towards ensuring the equal rights and opportunities for people with disabilities and their social protection.

 

Such institutions are engaged in the identification, removal of barriers and obstacles impeding on the rights and needs of relevant persons, including those with regard to access of these people, along with other citizens, to the objects of physical environment, transport, information and communications, as well as education, labor, culture, physical culture, sports.

 

Civil society associations provide social and other services to persons with disabilities, involve them in social activities, exercise public control over the compliance with the rights of this population group representing their interests and promote the elimination of discrimination against them.

 

The institutions of civil society respond much more quickly to the current challenges that are, unfortunately, increasingly common in the lives of people with disabilities. Representatives of these associations sometimes know much better the issues relating to a particular category of people.

 

Today I cannot imagine the formation and implementation of the public policy with regard to persons with disabilities without civil society organizations and their unions.

 

Furthermore, I want to say that the state in accordance with my legislative proposals, which have become laws of Ukraine, is obliged to cooperate with such institutions and engage them in decision making and elaborating draft decisions relating to persons with disabilities. This is, in particular, stipulated by the Law of Ukraine “On Basis of Social Protection in Ukraine”, Decree of President of Ukraine No. 678 dated 3 December 2015 “On Intensification of work on the rights of persons with disabilities”, Regulations of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine and the Procedure of submission of legal instruments to the state registration in the Ministry of Justice of Ukraine.

 

The community that takes part in solving the problems of persons with disabilities was able, along with my team, to ensure signing and ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which is now a part of the Ukrainian legislation.