Kyrgyzstan has joined the 153 countries that have signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. During the signing ceremony in New York on September 21, President Roza Otunbayeva emphasized her country’s commitment to building a tolerant society that respects the rights of all citizens. While parliament must still ratify the motion, which would give the Convention the strength of law, Otunbayeva’s move is important for acknowledging the right of disabled people to full participation in society.
Disability in Kyrgyzstan, like the rest of Central Asia, is stigmatizing. Children with disabilities like cerebral palsy or Down’s syndrome are often sent to institutions to be ‘rehabilitated,’ as though a disability were a crime or a contagion. Others are kept at home in isolation. Having a disabled child in the family can negatively affect other siblings’ marriage prospects, as the family is considered tainted by misfortune.
Thanks to the public advocacy efforts of local non-governmental organizations as well as disabled people themselves, these attitudes are beginning to shift. The right of access to public services -- like education, health, and transportation -- for people with disabilities is increasingly included in policy discussions in Kyrgyzstan. However, the danger is ever-present that disability rights will be seen as a niche issue, the subject of charity, or the last luxury to consider when all other problems have been solved.
But retrofitting is always messy. If we do not build rights for all into the policy process from the beginning, there will always be an excuse for exclusion.
Signing the Convention is an important first step. Now policymakers and the international donors who support them must use the current momentum to ensure that the rights of disabled people figure into the important discussions taking place in Kyrgyzstan: the redevelopment in Osh, education reform, improvements to the health system, and the role and responsibilities of national and local government. A place at the table is everyone’s right, not simply because the constitution says so.
But that is only part of the argument for thinking through accessibility of public services. For example, ensuring that services like education are meaningfully accessible to children with disabilities means investments and a comprehensive approach that benefit all members of society.
Working with a diverse classroom that includes children with disabilities requires teachers to go beyond traditional lecturing to develop methods that involve and engage all students. This serves children with disabilities, but it also serves the gifted student who is bored and disruptive during a lesson that is too easy, the child who is good at reading but struggles with math and may give up when the assignment is too difficult, or the student going through a rough patch at home who may need a bit more attention.
At the end of the day, we all have special needs. By making sure that we have the skilled staff and resources to deliver high-quality, flexible public services, we make them better for everyone.
Editor’s Note: Kate Lapham is the Bishkek-based Senior Program Manager for the Open Society Foundation’s Education Support Program. EurasiaNet.org operates under OSF’s auspices.