During the construction of a public school in Almaty, I pointed out that the new building needed to be equipped with spacious elevators and ramps.
My suggestion was met with puzzled looks and a sheepish remark that this was not a “special” school. This incident made me reflect on the status of people with disabilities in Kazakhstan.
Our society needs to fundamentally revise its attitude and keep an open mind.
Disabled does not mean defective; people with disabilities should not be crammed into special institutions, but rather integrated into society like everyone else.
Social prejudice and stereotypes create issues of accessibility, as the environment – even in large cities as Almaty and Astana – is not properly equipped to meet the needs of people of disabilities.
As a result, people with disabilities often feel discouraged and confine themselves within the walls of their homes. It is a cycle that needs to be broken.
The limitations created by my disability drove me to become more resolute to succeed, to prove to everyone that I am no different.
At the age of 14, I was given crutches to help me to walk and I left the hospital with the realization that my medical diagnosis was now an inseparable part of my identity. I was devastated, but I did not lose hope.
In the 1960s, unlike now, the issues of people with disabilities were completely unaddressed and ignored, and we were practically invisible. As a result, I constantly struggled with discrimination. I was rejected from high school because of a driving class and was refused a teaching position at the Kazakh National University because I could not participate in the annual potato harvest (!).
These obstacles were frustrating, but I never gave up. I demanded that my rights be respected and I persevered, going as far as stealing the principal’s keys in protest and arguing with the University dean until I was granted a job offer.
Today, it is relatively easier for people with disabilities to function in society. We have a Union of People with Disabilities, and as the Chairman of this organization, I organize numerous visits, seminars, and lectures to different regions of Kazakhstan to raise awareness and promote the rights of people with disabilities.
We actively lobby for equal access to education, leisure, and employment – and we are slowly, but surely reaching success.
As social and cultural barriers are tumbling down, people with disabilities need to overcome one more important challenge: They need to understand that a physical disability is not a life sentence and that they can enjoy a happy and successful life despite their diagnosis.
Society is growing more understanding and accepting, but what matters is that you need to accept yourself too. Do not let your disabilities hold you back – propel yourself forward and strive for the best.
* With special thanks to Didar Kul-Mukhamed and Assel Tleof for helping to prepare this post.