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Young disabled people in Kyrgyzstan find new goals and opportunities

More than 5,000 people with vision impairment live in Kyrgyzstan. I speak to Matluba Hakimova about independence, assistance and citizenship.

Ainaz Sulaimanova
12 February 2019

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Matluba Hakimova during her training at AUCA in 2018. Photo: Aikanysh Jeenbaeva. All rights reserved.

I first met Matluba Hakimova checking in for a flight at Manas Airport in Bishkek. Though blind, she proceeded to register for and board her flight effortlessly, without any assistance. Matluba is originally from Isfana, in Kyrgyzstan’s southern Batken region that borders Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. That day, she was flying home.

It is quite uncommon to encounter people with disabilities in Kyrgyzstan, given the lack of infrastructure and proper social care for people with disabilities. According to the National Statistics Committee of the Kyrgyz Republic, the number of registered citizens with disabilities in the country reached 10,949 in 2017. But the number is actually much higher. Due to the strong social stigma associated with disability, parents are reluctant to register children with disabilities, even if this means not receiving the social protection and medical care they may need. This week, as the Jogorku Kenesh, the Kyrgyz Parliament, adopted the Law on Ratification of the UN Convention of Rights of persons with disabilities, UNDP Kyrgyzstan announced that “finally more than 180,000 persons with disabilities will be able to make enjoy their rights fully.”

As for Matluba, her sight started deteriorating during the last two years of her studies at the Kyrgyz National University in Bishkek, where she majored in mathematics, informatics and cybernetics. Upon finishing her degree, she returned to Isfana to live with her parents. She felt that she could not lead an independent life due to the problems with her vision.

In Isfana, Matluba taught maths in school for eight years, until 2018. After she lost her sight completely in July 2014, her colleagues assisted her with writing the maths curriculum, as well as keeping records on her lessons. Her students were also supportive and diligent, so much so that they participated in national maths contests, winning prizes on more than one occasion.

Training for an independent life

But Matluba couldn’t reconcile herself to her lack of independence. In February 2018, while listening to a national TV station, she heard about a six-month free rehabilitation course for Kyrgyzstanis with sight difficulties. A month later she was back in Bishkek to participate in the programme, where she learnt how to read and write in the Braille system, took classes in Russian and English, finance as well as cooking to have guests over for dinner.

Most importantly, she was taught how to use a cane to move independently in the city. Matluba had been donated a cane by the Blind People Society back in Isfana, but admits she did not know how to actually use it: “You have to be trained on how to move it on the road surface, for example, when it is crowded, and how to find obstacles on the street.” She adds that this training enabled her to be independent: “I want to be competitive on the job market, so I took language and computer classes.”

This rehabilitation programme was initiated by Gulnaz Juzbaeva at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, where she is studying for an MBA. Juzbaeva, who is also blind, is the founder of the Kyrgyz Federation of the Blind and was herself trained in a similar programme in Louisiana, USA. Back in Kyrgyzstan, she felt the need to share the knowledge and skills she acquired abroad, in order for other blind people in her country to lead more independent and fulfilling lives. If she could do it, then others could, too.

More than 5,000 people with vision impairment live in Kyrgyzstan, making it extremely difficult for them to access information in print and online

More than 5,000 people with vision impairment live in Kyrgyzstan, making it extremely difficult for them to access information in print and online. This is why training them in the Braille system is so important. In 2017, some important laws of the Kyrgyz Republic, including the Criminal Code, were made available in Braille for the first time. The following year, a collection of legends and tales by Chinghiz Aitmatov, the country’s most famous writer, was also published in Braille.

Although technology can make life easier for the blind, with applications such as Voiceover on iPhone and iPad and TalkBack on Android, many cannot afford to buy it. Matluba, for one, managed to save enough, and, with the money she also won from a five-kilometre run, she purchased a smartphone.

Equal citizen, equal contribution

Matluba argues that being blind does not mean having limited opportunities: it just means one’s opportunities change. “Now I can do what I couldn’t do before. Before my blindness I had no goal in life, back in my village I worked as a math teacher just to have a job. Now I have plenty of different goals.”

Still, people with disabilities in Kyrgyzstan face plenty of hindrances to be treated as equal citizens. In Soviet times, the disabled benefitted from full employment in the textile, woodwork and other industries. In 1928, the first blind workers cooperative was formed in Frunze, as Bishkek was called at the time, which produced painting brushes. With the end of the USSR in 1991, independent Kyrgyzstan faced enormous economic difficulties and most industries were closed. Since then, the disabled have found it difficult to be employed, something that Juzbaeva’s trainings aim to change.

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Matluba Hakimova during her training at AUCA in 2018. Photo: Aikanysh Jeenbaeva. All rights reserved.

Nowadays, however, there is a Kyrgyz Society for the Blind and Deaf, as well as educational centres such as the Equal Opportunities Centre and the Phenomenon Public Foundation. Since 2010, a blind MP sits in Parliament. Elected first in the Ar Namys party, Dastan Bekeshev is now a deputy for the ruling Social Democratic Party and uses his position to lobby for the rights of disabled citizens.

Since 2015, people with vision impairment in Bishkek can learn how to use a GPS navigation system to move around the capital at the Equal Opportunities Centre, a project Bekeshev initiated. As he commented to a local news outlet, “now, with the help of a phone, a blind person can even get on a trolley bus and get off at the stop he needs.”

Now that she can be independent, Matluba wants to stay in Bishkek and work as a teacher or in an office.

“It is more convenient to live in Bishkek than in my town. If I’d stayed, there I wouldn’t have met my peers,” she says. “Back in Isfana, I was not confident and I was very shy. I used to tell myself, no, I can’t go there. Here I am confident. We have many activities on the weekends. In the future I want to go abroad, learn more and then help other blind people in Kyrgyzstan to be independent.”

Not all, however, share Matluba’s drive. Juzbaeva, the trainer, is well aware that after the training programme some participants decide to go back to their routine and become dependent once again on their relatives, isolating themselves from other people in the process. But her objective is not only to train blind people, but to educate those who see, too, about diversity in their society. Two of her trainees-turned-trainers are a perfect example of that: Jalaldin Abduvaliev and Azat Toktombaev are the only blind triathletes from Kyrgyzstan; their dream is to participate in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

If they can do it, why couldn’t others?

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