Yulia Stefnyak: an IT student, advocate for the rights of people with disabilities

Bringing New Hope in the 'Never-Give-Up' Spirit: UNICEF Torch Bearers Light Up the 2nd European Games

Natalia Agata Warcholak
Yuliya Stefnyak
UNICEF in Belarus
26 June 2019

On its journey through Belarus, the 2nd European Games 2019 Torch Relay will promote ‘Bright Year, Bright You’ as its slogan. One of the key massages of UNICEF, the non-commercial social legacy partner of The Games, is promoting social inclusion through sport. The intention is to bring all the Belarusian people together, especially people with disabilities, around messages of support, acceptance and encouragement of one another, while working together to reduce stigma and discrimination against people with disabilities and their families.

After arriving in Brest on May 12, the flame will then follow on to the Belovezhskaya Pushcha national park, the castles in Mir and Lida, and the towns of Grodno, Vitebsk, Polotsk, Braslav, Mogilev, Bobruysk, Gomel and Naroch among others, finally arriving in Minsk on June 17. The flame will be carried to Minsk by many torchbearers, including UNICEF Representative Dr Rashed Mustafa as a Star Ambassador, and UNICEF’s collaborators Yuliya Stefnyak, Tanya Filonets and Alexei Gaponchik. The three young torchbearers were nominated by UNICEF for their outstanding achievements and contributions to fighting stigma and discrimination, and for their firm belief in the transformative power of sport.

Yuliya Stefnyak
UNICEF in Belarus

Yulia is combining her personal ambition to work in IT with a self-appointed role of an agent of social change. Yulia has officially been a UNICEF volunteer since 2017, but her activism goes back a long way. What motivated her to become a UNICEF volunteer?

 ‘I always felt so inspired by what UNICEF does and how they do things. There is something inherently positive and friendly about UNICEF, for instance that familiar shade of blue in UNICEF logo, or Uni-Uni – UNICEF’s cuddly yellow ambassador. And knowing that you help children by volunteering for UNICEF makes everything even more worthwhile.’

Volunteering is to Yulia a good opportunity to show what you are capable of, and to give back to your community. The 2016 Inclusive Belarus campaign, in which Yulia was involved despite her young age, was a breaking point for her.

‘I thought I needed to continue this way. I had already been known to UNICEF, and they accepted me as their volunteer despite the fact that I was still at school.’

‘Yes, I’m on a wheelchair. Yes, there are physical limitations to what I can do. But it does not stop me from living my life to the fullest. If you don’t believe in yourself and you let it show, other people will also find it difficult to believe in you.’

Yuliya Stefnyak
UNICEF in Belarus

Since she took up her role as a UNICEF volunteer, Yuliya has noticed changes in people’s attitude: ‘people who have met me know that my wheelchair is not something that would hold me back. Sometimes though I get surprised looks from people who don’t know me. This is largely because they are not used to seeing people with disabilities being out and about. People with disabilities are not visible. And this is still a problem.’

Although volunteering clearly involves substantial sacrifices, especially for a busy (and high-achieving!) student, it brings a wealth of benefits. For instance, being a UNICEF volunteer has greatly improved Yulia’s confidence and has given her a sense of purpose. ‘It took me a while to understand that I can still live life to the full. Once I have, I started doing just that. I changed, and then people’s attitude to me changed as well.’ But it would not have been possible without the support and encouragement of her parents: ‘My mama has been such an inspiration to me. She kept telling me “why should your wheelchair hold you back? If you want, you can achieve anything. You are no different from others.” And that’s where I am now.’

This is largely because Yulia has always been in mainstream education. ‘I was in an ordinary kindergarten and ordinary school. There were ordinary children, and children with special needs and children with learning difficulties, but we all were together in one class. It was a very good example of inclusion, and also a good example for me.’

The role of sport in her personal journey cannot be stressed enough: ‘For people with physical disabilities, sport is a must. Sport is absolutely necessary to keep fit. It’s movement, it’s a way forward, and it gives you a great sense of achievement. I simply couldn’t do without sport.’

When she found out that she’d be a torch bearer, Yulia received the news with a mix of shock and overwhelming joy. ‘With that torch I am going to bring hope, faith and confidence to people. It’s a small victory for myself, for our friends and for our family. On a personal level, it’s a symbol of a new beginning and a validation for my self-esteem.’

Although Yulia has been engaged in activism for years, she does not see herself as a leader or a role model. ‘I’m just an ordinary girl, at least this is how I feel’. She now faces another challenge – this time to give more visibility to people with disabilities, and to encourage other members of her community to embrace sport as a key aspect of a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle. Her message is clear: ‘Yes, I’m on a wheelchair. Yes, there are physical limitations to what I can do. But it does not stop me from living my life to the fullest. If you don’t believe in yourself and you let it show, other people will also find it difficult to believe in you.’

‘I think that everything is on our hands, that everything is possible. My message to everyone is to have dreams, grow, learn and be unafraid. When that happens, we will see that after all we are all equal. We are different but equal. Some people wear glasses, some are big or have different skin colour, others are in a wheelchair – but we are all equal. We are all human beings, and this is what unites us.’