Kazakhstan began 2015 by ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on Jan. 20, the most recent and potentially most important in a series of steps taken since independence to improve the lives of the country’s disabled population.
The ratification of the convention “will provide the 627,000 disabled persons living in Kazakhstan, and their families, additional guarantees of enjoyment and protection of their constitutional rights and freedoms,” the Ministry of Healthcare and Social Development said in a statement on the ratification.
The move coincides with the government’s Kedergisiz Keleshek (Future without Barriers) program. With the grand, multi-year Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy aiming to improve quality of life in the country generally, Future Without Barriers focuses on Kazakhstan’s disabled citizens, to ensure they aren’t left behind as the country begins to embody its middle-income status and progress toward joining the world’s 30 most developed countries, the goal of the 2050 strategy.
Future Without Barriers will focus on helping disabled Kazakh citizens find permanent employment, eliminating physical barriers, creating a legal framework that will help disabled people realize their rights, raising public awareness of and positive attitudes toward people with disabilities and developing inclusive education, according to the website of Kazakhstan’s ruling Nur Otan party, which has launched the program.
Though a number of other initiatives have been launched in the last seven years, the ratification of this convention is the dawning of “a period of real action,” said Zhadrasyn Saduakassov, an expert at the Kazakhstan Confederation of Disabled People. And while it is the government that has ratified the agreement, “a great deal of responsibility rests on nongovernmental organizations, including the Confederation of Disabled People.”
Improving quality of life for all
President Nursultan Nazarbayev pays a lot of attention to the issues of disabled people, said President of the Kazakhstan Confederation of Disabled People Zhanat Omarbekova, citing the coming ‘Year of Equal Opportunities’ and the Future Without Barriers program.
President Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy is intended to lift Kazakhstan to among the world’s 30 most developed countries, Saduakassov said. “We believe that the implementation of this strategic plan can radically change the lives of people with disabilities in Kazakhstan and create an inclusive society with an accessible social environment.”
It is obvious that reform is needed, Saduakassov said. “We need new research on disability issues, more young people with disabilities participating in the Bolashak scholarship program [that sends some of Kazakhstan’s brightest for training overseas], more architects and experts on creating an accessible environment. We also need investments to support existing centers for the employment of individuals with severe disabilities,” he said.
Experts from the Kazakhstan Confederation of Disabled People are consulting with the Parliament, ministries, akimats, the Nur Otan party and other entities to ensure the voices of disabled people are heard, he said. “We believe that the participation of our representatives in such activities will improve the general situation. We want to minimize barriers, as do our officials.”
Changing attitudes to change opportunities
Much will also rest on changing attitudes within Kazakhstan’s non-disabled population. One of the legacies left by the country’s Soviet past is a lingering mindset that frames disabilities as illnesses to be either treated or if not, hidden away. During the Soviet period in the country, disabled children and adults were often sent away to special schools or institutions, where they had little interaction with the outside world. Even if they weren’t sent away, physical barriers would often prevent them from leaving their homes. People with disabilities were rarely seen in public.
Today, this is changing.
“I used to go to work and I had these six stairs in front of me that I needed to climb,” said Saduakassov, who uses a wheelchair. “I remember [that before], nobody would try to help me. Now, people of older generations, around 45–50, still avoid us. But the younger generation is different, they are not afraid to come and offer their help.”
“The situation is beginning to change, and the attitude of ordinary people towards disabled persons is improving,” Saduakassov said. “We see this and it makes us happy.”
Increasing employment access and opportunities
Most of the employees of the Kazakhstan Confederation of Disabled People are disabled themselves. “You probably have seen today people with disabilities working in our office. They lead an active social life, participate in different events such as talks on making amendments to legislation concerning the position of people with disabilities in the society,” said Omarbekova. Omarbekova’s interest in disabled rights began when her husband was injured in a car accident and lost the use of his legs. “However, we are making only first steps and we cannot say we have changed the situation completely,” she said.
Improving access to employment is one of these crucial first steps. In April 2014, there were 90,300 disabled people working in Kazakhstan, according to the Ministry of Healthcare and Social Development.
“I had no right to get employed in 1999,” Saduakassov noted. “Only after forwarding my claims to the akimat [city administration] did the situation change. Nowadays if the person really wants, he or she can get a job.”
The confederation has been helping people with disabilities find jobs for three years so far, he reported. Other social initiatives have been launched to help connect moderately to severely disabled people in Kazakhstan with employers, he said: for example, the city of Astana itself held its third job fair for disabled people in early spring, with 30 organizations attending, according to city representatives. And from last April, according to a report by the Kazinform news agency, local executive bodies had begun to hire people with disabilities through implementing employment maps designed specifically for each region.
There are signs of improvement, Saduakassov said, but there are still steps to be taken, physically and socially. “Unfortunately, due to problems with the accessibility of public transport for disabled people, low wages, a lack of necessary facilities in the workplace and strained relationships with colleagues, half of the employed persons with disabilities are forced to leave, as they experience veiled discrimination.” A government resolution that stipulates that three percent of work positions should be reserved for disabled people is disregarded in practice, he said.
Rebuilding with access in mind
Changing attitudes is important, but the country still needs a major infrastructure overhaul. A January 2013 report by the UN Development Program, a major partner with Kazakhstan in programs to improve the lives of disabled people, said that more than 70 percent of the public infrastructure in the country is inaccessible to those with physical disabilities. “With the UNDP’s help, the government is surveying the accessibility of public buildings and services and making cost estimates for necessary upgrades,” the story noted.
The number of physical barriers remaining for disabled people is “unsatisfying,” Saduakassov said, with many ramps that are “like roller coasters.”
As of 2012, more than 20,000 wheelchair access ramps had been built in the country, he noted – but because of carelessness or a lack of consultation with experts and actual people with disabilities, some three quarters of them are unusable or even life-threatening, he said, citing a then-Ministry of Health and Social Protection report.
And those issues affect only people with physical impairments. “Problems of accessibility in the urban environment for people with hearing and visual impairment are hardly considered,” he noted.
However, Saduakassov said, this is changing. Planners are starting to ask questions before they build. “Sometimes people call us to ask how to construct a ramp. As Gorbachev once said, ‘the process has begun.’” He noted that the confederation has organized training sessions with security officers at Astana’s international airport on how to accompany passengers with disabilities, as well as for drivers of different kinds of public transportation.
But even in infrastructure, attitude and inclusivity matter as much as incline. In a 2013 government meeting on the topic of accessibility, head of the Shyrak Association of Women with Disabilities Lyazzat Kaltayeva said, “The installation of the right ramps alone will not solve the problem,” The Astana Times reported. “The needs of all disabled persons must be addressed, and this requires the involvement of several ministries, local executive bodies and necessary inclusions in regional economic planning, as it often appears that locally such matters are treated cavalierly.”
“If we cultivate a tolerant attitude towards people with disabilities from childhood, maybe construction developers in pursuit of profit and deadlines will not, in the future, overlook the needs of the disabled,” she said.
Coming out of the shadows
Kazakhstan’s disabled population has been slowly coming out of hiding since independence. “I think the main point is that people see us through media,” Saduakassov said. “In Soviet times, only in the 1980s did people have an opportunity to see people with disabilities during the Paralympic Games. Before that, it was all hidden.” (During the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, a Soviet representative famously said “There are no invalids in the USSR” in response to a question from a Western journalist on whether the Soviet Union would take part in the first Paralympic Games scheduled to be held in the U.K. later that year.)
Now, Kazakhstan’s Confederation of Disabled People publishes its own thick, glossy magazine, full of stories of success from the country’s disabled citizens and beyond.
“In 2008, we established the annual international Zhan Shuak Award for people with disabilities who are playing an active role in society,” Omarbekova said, describing her organization’s role in changing hearts and minds. “My husband was an example of how active a person can be, even being handicapped, and he wanted others to be the same and not to give up because of the physical obstacles.”
Their annual award ceremony in Astana’s Palace of Peace and Accord is always attended by government representatives at all levels, Omarbekova said. “It is also a place where people meet, fall in love and establish families despite all the hardships.” The award has been given to people from Kazakhstan, Poland, Bulgaria and Germany so far, she said.
“This is a great opportunity for people of disabilities to come out to the public. They say they feel energy and motivation to do something, that we are the same as other people. It’s an inspiration for them,” said Saduakassov.