Five contenders to the title of the Knight of Ukraine in the Wheelchair Contest.
When David Copperfield, the great American magician, came to Kyiv with his show, he was invited to visit a nightclub called Bingo. There he met, among other people, and made acquaintance with a physically handicapped person in a wheelchair, named Mykola Podrezan. This always smiling, very friendly person is one of those people who have some magnetic charm in them, so that you just canít help going into a conversation with them. A nightclub does not seem to be a proper place for the disabled but the thing is Mr Podrezan runs his own show. David Copperfield was impressed. They talked for some time paying little attention to the usual hubbub and loud music of the nightclub. For the past 15 years, David Copperfield has been running a programme called Magic. This programme, in action in thousands of hospitals throughout the world, has been worked out together with physicians, and aims at improving locomotory functions of physically handicapped people and of their psychological stability (which is a very important factor, too).
Unfortunately, Ukraine is not one of the many countries that benefit by this programme. Mykola Podrezan does his best to help cripples in Ukraine lead more or less normal life and feel themselves worthy members of society. At the age of 38 Mykola Podrezan, then a successful disk jockey, survived a car accident but was badly crippled. Before the disaster he was an excellent dancer, bon vivant. In the crash, he lost the control of the lower part of his body. He did not despair, and being a talented man and a great optimist, a theatre director by education, he put his talents to use, in spite of being confined to the wheelchair. In contrast to many western cities, there are very few people in wheelchairs to be seen in the streets of Kyiv, though according to the statistics, five people are daily crippled in Ukraine (incidentally, the corresponding figures for Sweden, England and the USA are higher). Most of these people are young, of the working age. We have to admit that the care and facilities provided in Ukraine for the handicapped lag behind those provided in the west. Maybe, that is why not too many of the handicapped people can be seen in the streets of Ukrainian towns. At the shows and festivals organized for the physically handicapped by Mykola Podrezan, I met and made acquaintance with several people in wheelchairs. Anatoliy Kvoka is one of them.


Musical contest.


Anatoliy Kvoka in the self-defence contest.

He is 26 years old now, his son is five. Once married, now he is divorced. Before an accident that put him into a wheelchair he was an electrical engineer, and now he works as a cobbler. After the accident, he lives with his parents. He does not complain, he says his life now differs from the one he used to live ó the number of everyday problems he has to solve has greatly increased. He has even started a small apiary business. He treated me to some of the honey that he collects from his beehives and I found it was very good indeed. He also explained to me how to select a good honey at the market. I met him in Kyiv where he came from his native village of Yurkivka in the land of Chernihivshchyna to take part in the Knight in the Wheelchair Festival organized by Podrezan. Podrezan, a man of great energy, set up a fund for people with injuries of the spine and spinal cord.

Award presented by Lyudmyla Kuchma.
With the passage of time, this fund grew, acquired efficient employees, gained experience, received help from Ukrainian and foreign patrons. The fund has organized Miss Ukraine in the Wheelchair and the Knight of Ukraine in the Wheelchair Contests, with the FALBI pharmaceutical company being one of the coorganizers and maecenases of these contests.Thanks to the fund, many handicapped people got married, were accepted as students by colleges, found new faith in life. I talked to many participants of the wheelchair contests and festivals and did not hear complaints about the physical pain which rarely leaves them. But I heard and felt the anguish of their hearts when they spoke of their friends and spouses who had left them after they had been crippled by accidents. They regard it as treachery. But they did not give in to despair and have found new friends and new spouses. Their faith in their new friends and in their new love strengthens. Tetyana, a red-haired high-school student full of faith in the future, plans to go on studying after completing her secondary education: she wants to be a psychologist. ďI think itís great that such festivals are organized, they are very useful for us, people in wheelchairs. They help us find new faith, and itís so enormously important for us, to have faith in ourselves. My friends help me find strength to go on living and hoping.
These festivals show we are not at all helpless as one might think. I know I can do a lot of things in spite of my handicap. I write poetry, take part in all kinds of festivals and contests for the handicapped.Ē The Knight of Ukraine in the Wheelchair Contests are particularly popular and well advertized. The wives of many diplomats living in Kyiv take part in such charity actions. Welcome to Ukraine magazine channels part of the proceeds from the sale of its copies to help-the-handicapped programmes. It was only as late as the end of 1992 that the UN adopted the Standard Rules dealing with the rights of the handicapped that called for providing them with equal opportunities.
Even in the most developed countries of the world the physically handicapped constitute up to ten percent of the population. There is no reliable statistics as to the number of the handicapped in Ukraine, it is known only that they make up more that ten per cent of the population. It translates into at least eight million people (about 125 thousand of them in Kyiv alone) many of whom, alas, live in degrading poverty, dragging out a wretched existence. Some of them have lost faith in everything, even in God. Religious organizations have started paying more attention to them. Many of the handicapped, no matter what, preserve dignity and find what to do to make life worth living. The Union of Organizations of the Handicapped is the biggest union of its kind in Ukraine with 172 organizations being part of it.
Mykola Podrezan, organizer of the Knight of Ukraine in the Wheelchair Contest.
All in all, 912 organizations in Ukraine deal with the problems of the handicapped. It seems to be quite an impressive number but I have a feeling that they are not doing properly what they are called upon to do. As they say, too many cooks spoil the broth. Mykola Podrezan is one of the few whose work in helping the handicapped really matters. He finds sponsors and patrons, sets up health-improvement centres for the handicapped, organizes contests and festivals, small and big. One of them is The Neptune Holiday Festival in the sea resort town of Slovyansk. The participants praise the festival highly. Thanks to Podrezan, a number of handicapped people were invited to the Slavyansky Bazar and Tavriyski Ihry Performing Arts Festivals, some of them were not only spectators but participants, though these two festivals are designed for ďhealthyĒ performers. Podrezan has made himself known to presidents of major companies, politicians and pop stars ó with the sole aim of seeking help for the handicapped, and not for any reasons of vanity. ďYou see, when I meet the president of Ukraine, shake hands with him, discuss problems concerning the handicapped, and then the photographs of such a meeting are published in periodicals, central and local, it helps solve problems which otherwise would take ages for the bureaucrats to tackle.


Dancing contest.


Ukrainian-style bowling.


Vitaliy Babenko overcoming an obstacle.

They see photographs of me and the president, and realize I could complain straight to the president about their disinclination to act promptly and efficiently. Iím always dressed formally when I have official meetings though it costs me a lot to look at ease. I have practically no control of the lower part of my body. The physically handicapped in Ukraine take a rather active part in those kinds of sports which are accessible to them. For example, at the recent weight-lifting championship, held in Budapest, (athletes lift weights lying down on their backs) 10 participants from Ukraine set 7 world and 12 European records. Yuriy Porokhnyavy, head of the All-Ukrainian Invasport Centre, said that Ukrainian women were particularly successful at the championship in Budapest. Lyudmyla Osmanova from Yalta, the Crimea, lifted a hundred-kilogram weight though she herself weighs only 59 kilograms. The Ukrainian team won 6 gold, 1 silver and 4 bronze medals. Sports competitions, shows and festivals in which physically handicapped take part, are of great importance for their spiritual well-being as well as for their physical health. Knights of Ukraine in Wheelchairs, organized by Mykola Podrezan, are, in fact, contests, at which men compete in dances, athletic stunts, self-defence, playing music, cooking. Before the contest, those who want to take part in it attend the Zhovten rehabilitation centre, headed by Natalya Hryaznova, Podrezanís wife and most reliable partner, to be properly trained and to acquire confidence in themselves which is needed at any contest. The jury is made of women and at the latest contest the jury, with Lyudmyla Kuchma, the wife of the President of Ukraine as one of its members, awarded the title of the Knight of Honour of Ukraine in the Wheelchair to the man who cooked the best cake. Every time the contestants appear on the stage for the next round of the competition, they wear different sets of clothes: national, formal, historical. Pop singers are invited by Mykola Podrezan to perform at the festival. On the stage you can see sets of real knightsí armour, and the show and contest are interspersed with mock fights.

The relatives and friends of the contestants cheer them on and applaud the winners. Observing the audience I could see inspired and happy faces, but I also could see faces with expressions of anxiety on them. Probably, these people could not get rid of the thought that after the festival the hard routine of everyday life and caring for the disabled would return. And yet, the general atmosphere was festive. Mykola Podrezan was helped in launching and running the contest by Tetyana Barantsova, a Vice-Miss of Ukraine in the Wheelchair-98 and currently a student of the University of Culture, and by Oleksiy Soroka, a Vice-Knight of Ukraine in the Wheelchair-98 and now a student of the law department of a college. Podrezan knows how to choose enthusiastic leaders who will provide efficient help. He plans to start inviting physically handicapped people from abroad to take part in his festivals and contests. The winner of the Knight of Ukraine in the Wheelchair-99 Contest became Serhiy Shchennykov, Kryvy Rih. Vitaliy Babenko, the Knight of Honour of Ukraine in the Wheelchair, said after the competition was over: ďOf course Iím happy Iíve won the title of the Knight of Honour of Ukraine in the Wheelchair. I had twenty days of hard training before the contest. But really, the most important thing is not the victory itself, itís participation that matters. Itís great that so many people could take part or be present. Iím so grateful to the organizers. I have gained new confidence in myself, faith in the future. I have plans which Iíll discuss with Mr Podrezan. I want to help him in his very noble work. Then, maybe Iíll return to my native town of Luhansk, I know now that Iíll be able to find work. Iíll be helping people with physical handicaps regain confidence in themselves.Ē

By Heorhiy-Hryhoriy Pylypenko
Photographs from Mykola Podrezanís archives