Franklin Roosevelt, Murderball, and Free Internet Access: The Rights of the Disabled and the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine

Posted by: Tim Standaert, Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer

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Murderball. This is perhaps the most intriguing movie title I have run across in a long time, though you might be surprised at the content of this particular flick.

The documentary followed the trials and tribulations of the U.S. Men’s Wheelchair Rugby Team, who are in cutthroat competition with their archrivals, the Canadian National Team.  These are not shy, retiring wallflowers, but aggressive and skilled athletes who do want to “murder” their opponents.  I showed the film to a small group of students and university instructors on December 10th at the U.S. Embassy’s weekly movie night at the American Library at National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.  We chose to show the critically acclaimed Murderball as part of our activities in celebration of International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

The United Nations designated December 3rd as International Day of Persons with Disabilities in 1981 to promote respect for the rights of persons with disabilities, increase our understanding of disabilities and encourage inclusion of persons with disabilities, emphasizing the political, economic and social gains to be made through such inclusiveness.  This is an issue that’s near and dear to me, largely I think because I grew up with an uncle who was developmentally challenged.  I was always fascinated by my uncle, who was an extremely nice guy and, I remember, a huge sports fan, who would spend hours watching baseball and football games, carefully jotting down statistics for his favorite teams.

Throughout America, city buses are equipped with elevators to lift wheelchairs on and off. (©AP Images)
Throughout America, city buses are equipped with elevators to lift wheelchairs on and off. (©AP Images)

I should mention that we were happy to see many individuals throughout Ukraine taking notice of this important day.  On December 3rd, for example, a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Kirovograd gave a presentation on the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), a law that came into effect 45 years after the death of US President Franklin Delano

FDR was only photographed twice in a wheelchair though this bronze sculpture can be seen at the FDR memorial in Washington DC.  (Photo © Rachel Cooper)
FDR was only photographed twice in a wheelchair though this bronze sculpture can be seen at the FDR memorial in Washington DC. (Photo © Rachel Cooper)

Roosevelt (FDR), arguably the most famous disabled American.  Despite having contracted polio as an adult, he was rarely photographed in his wheelchair during his lifetime.  Worrying about public perceptions of an elected official with a disability in less enlightened times, he sadly felt it important to conceal his disability throughout his presidency.  Roosevelt did, however, help found the charitable organization for the disabled known today as The March of Dimes.  And in Washington DC, the FDR Memorial was the first such site to be designed as wheelchair-friendly destination for visitors to our capital.

Other Embassy activities related to the International Day of Persons with Disabilities also involved film.  One diplomat from the Embassy showed Autism The Musical at School #168, one of the three schools in Kyiv that practices inclusive education.  This movie, first screened in Ukraine as part of the U.S. Embassy’s American Documentary Showcase during the 40th Annual Molodist Film Festival in late October, shows the herculean efforts of an American mother who decides to gather together young children with autism, including her son, whom she had adopted from Russia, to write and perform a musical about bullying in school.)  Additionally, on November 30, the Window on America Center in Poltava screened and discussed Rear Window, a movie about a paralyzed architect and starring disabled American actor Christopher Reeve, famous for his role as Superman before a horse-riding accident that left him paralyzed.

In Ukraine, I am proud to say, the US Embassy has a rich history of championing the rights of the disabled.  We sent a Ukrainian TV crew to the US last summer to work on a documentary on the disabled in America.  During their travels, they were fortunately able to visit Oregon, where some of the disabled Ukrainian students in our “flagship” youth education exchanges – the yearlong Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX) – were taking part in an orientation camp.  The camp gives the kids a chance to bond and build up their confidence before heading off to their host American families and to meet their new classmates in a typical American high school.  Over 25 disabled and special needs students from Ukraine have taken part in FLEX since 1992.  We are all eager to see the documentaries – which we understand will also look at the good work of NGOs here in Ukraine – that we hope will be aired sometime in the new year.

We have a number of other initiatives aimed at helping the disabled of Ukraine:

On December 3, 2009, FLEX alumni participated in a 10 city webchat outlining educational opportunities for the disabled in America.
On December 3, 2009, FLEX alumni participated in a 10 city webchat outlining educational opportunities for the disabled in America.

The Embassy has established three Library Electronic Access Program (LEAP) centers in Ukraine that provide free internet access to the blind – in Kyiv, Kherson and Rivne – complete with special devices to “read” what’s on the screen and printers that print materials in Braille.  In December 2009, Embassy staff visited the special LEAP center in Kyiv and hosted an internet discussion of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities that involved people in 10 cities.

Chris Danielsen of the National Federation of the Blind uses software that helps blind people access the Internet.  Such software is available at the three LEAP centers for the blind in Ukraine, thanks to US Embassy grants. (©AP Images)
Chris Danielsen of the National Federation of the Blind uses software that helps blind people access the Internet. Such software is available at the three LEAP centers for the blind in Ukraine, thanks to US Embassy grants. (©AP Images)

The Embassy ‘s Democracy Commission (DemCom) has also supported a number of NGOs working for the rights of the disabled with funds from our Democracy Grants Program including developing materials in Braille to help the blind and visually impaired understand their rights as voters in the January and February presidential elections.  Along the same lines, a blind Kharkiv-based journalist produced an audio book containing information about electoral rights, new election legislation and candidates’ electoral platforms.  I got to meet this journalist and one of the NGOs in Kharkiv last year.  What an impressive bunch!

We have two American professors who are experts on Special Education at Ukrainian universities this semester — one in Lviv at Ukrainian Catholic University and the other (focusing specifically on education of the Deaf) in Luhansk at Volodymr Dahl Eastern Ukrainian State University — under the U.S. State Department’s Fulbright Scholars Program.  (The Fulbright Program in Ukraine sends about 50 Ukrainian students, young faculty and scholars to the U.S. each year, and approximately 25 Americans come to Ukraine.  More information:  English, Ukrainian)
Over the years, we have sent a number of representatives of Ukrainian NGOs to the U.S. on short-term professional study tours — usually under the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program and USAID’s Community Connections — to focus on the issue of the rights of the disabled, most recently in autumn 2009.  More information: English, Ukrainian.

For more information on U.S. approaches to people with disabilities, please take a look at the Disability and Ability electronic journal (eJournal) in English and Russian published by the U.S. State Department.

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2 thoughts on “Franklin Roosevelt, Murderball, and Free Internet Access: The Rights of the Disabled and the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine

  1. Glad you liked it! By the way, if you have any friends who are blind, the can listen to the podcast version, in either English or Ukrainian. Happy New Year!

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