Escape Ukraine and connect through disability

One hand…on top of the other…enthusiastic, I consciously pushed my body forward, still looking up. Over time I would learn that advanced climbers know how to focus on the supports and rely on their legs for support while finding stabilizing body positions. Living in a rugged part of British Columbia in Canada as a child, I was introduced to the basics of rock climbing and rock resistance. Fast forward to my late teens, after a twist of fate left me dependent on a wheelchair to get around, I participated in a study abroad exchange program in England. While I was there I was invited by a group of local young people to take part in a weekend trip to the Scottish Highlands. The necessary arrangements were made which allowed me to participate in most of the activities offered, including kayaking. Thanks to my strength regained in the upper body, I was the only one of the group not to capsize. The organizers, however, felt that the mud run and rock roll back was too dangerous for me. Since then, forward climbing has fallen off my radar, until recently.

Conducting research for a future article on integrated dance, I attended the capacity lounge in Los Angeles. During an interview with the organizer of the event, the “adapted” rock face caught my attention. As someone with a spinal cord injury and head trauma from a fall, I cautiously considered the climb. I knew this would provide the ultimate opportunity to face my fears, so I vicariously watched another young woman scale the wall. She too was facing her fears.

Oksana climbs an “adapted” rock wall. Photo credit: David Szymanski

I soon discovered that this climber was a resilient Ukrainian named Oksana Kononets, a model and former Miss Wheelchair who recently suffered a heartbreaking evacuation from her war-torn homeland of Ukraine.

Her five-day trip took her from Ukraine (Kyiv-Lviv) to Poland (Warsaw) and finally to the United States. Barely arriving in California twenty-four hours before our meeting, her second day in Los Angeles was filled with a mixture of emotions; from the relief and gratitude that she and her mother Maryna have reached a place of refuge, to the excitement of exploring the expo and the exhaustion of the trek and grief. They had just learned that a friend back home had died in the conflict.

I was introduced to Oksana by her good friend Jonathon Chuang, who became her translator when needed. Famous professional model in Ukraine, Oksana was first invited to appear in the The Trail of Dreams on March 8, 2022 in Los Angeles but when Russia invaded his country on February 24, everything changed. Oksana informed the organizers of the association, which promotes adapted fashion for people with disabilities, that she was canceling her planned participation in the event. Patriotic, the brave beauty has instead planned to stay with her family in Kyiv throughout the conflict. Six days into the war, however, her concerned father persuaded his daughter to seek refuge in the West.

She and her mother packed a bag and left with her wheelchair. A quadriplegic since falling from the fifth floor of a building ten years ago, Oksana needs her wheelchair to get around. Describing their escape, Oksana recalls: “We just stood on the platform in a huge crowd and waited for any train we could get on…all the people were hanging on to each other and I was very afraid that my wheelchair is broken. Fortunately, after traveling by bus, train, taxi and plane, her wheelchair was only slightly damaged. “Usually, from Kyiv to Lviv, this train takes six hours, continues Oksana, but we traveled for 11 hours (all the others) standing, clinging to each other, without the possibility of going to the toilet.” While some people call Oksana a hero, she points out that people can only be heroes “with the help of others.”

Once she and Maryna landed in Warsaw, Jonathan and his family arranged for their safe passage to Los Angeles. They are both grateful to take refuge and be safe from bombs and missile attacks, but Oksana is not entirely at peace. “I only watch and read news from Ukraine. The whole world is now divided for me into black and white, where there is good and evil,” she says sadly. She also worries about her family as she and her mother left behind Oksana’s grandmother, father, sister and cat. Her grandmother, still a child during World War II, tells Oksana that she remembers the toll of the Nazi invasion, as well as the Chernobyl disaster (April 26, 1986) decades later, and their impact. . devastating. Just five years ago, a train station near her home was bombed. Surviving all these threats has become a living historical record that puts things into perspective for Oksana.

The morning of our meeting, Oksana was finally able to make contact with her sister. “It is a joy for me to hear the voices of my loved ones and the news of the liberation of Ukrainian cities from the occupiers,” she said.

As we got to know each other better, I realized that this soul mate’s life path had distinct parallels to mine. Granted, as teenagers we both went through intense rehabilitation after a traumatic fall, but there’s more. Before her injury, Oksana was interested in the fashion industry and worked as a makeup artist. Likewise, I was a representative of Christian Dior beauty products. Academically, we both studied education and teaching methods after our respective accidents. Oksana got her graduate degree and I got a certification in teaching integrated dance. For Each of Us Sundance Channel Cast push girls inspired us to pursue our dreams. Angela Rockwood’s example helped Oksana aim for a career as a professional model while I was encouraged by a meaningful exchange with the late Auti Angel, a wheelchair dancing pioneer and shining example of faith.

Today you can see us all dancing in our wheelchairs. Oksana is featured in Israeli singer Adi Yacobi’s 2021 music video “I’m Special”, and I appear in Peter Larsen’s 2019 music video for the uplifting song “Good in You”.

In the spring of 2014, I made history as the first wheelchair model to walk the runway at Style Fashion Week LA and Oksana became the first wheelchair model at Ukraine Fashion Week in 2018. As alumni pageant titleholders, Oksana and I have used our respective platforms to advocate for other people with disabilities and encourage young women to embrace their individuality while celebrating the beauty of life. Through our experiences, we have each discovered firsthand that the journey is easier when shared and that even the most strenuous climb can provide unparalleled views.

To help provide aid to Ukrainians fleeing the conflict, especially those who are injured and disabled, pleasClick here.

To watch our interview with Oksana Kononets, please click below:

Women’s eNews interview with Oksana Kononets
Escape Ukraine and connect through disability
Author Gina Marie (left) with Oksana Kononets (right) holding the Ukrainian flag. Photo credit: David Szymanski

About the Author: Gina Marie is a Loreen Arbus Accessibility is Fundamental Program Scholar, a Fellowship created to train women with disabilities as professional journalists so they can write, research and report on the most critical issues impacting the disability community. A dancer at heart @miss.independance (instagram), Gina Marie is passionate about giving voice to the stories of others and connecting people through the arts.

Escape Ukraine and connect through disability


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