Munkhtulga Tseveldorj is successful for a 22 year old. Author of two poetry books, he has a third on the way. He’s a good student in the library management program at the Mongolian Institute of Arts and Culture. And he is one of the very few physically disabled Mongolians working on a university degree.
Though he is "handling classes fine,” attending lectures is a challenge. Tseveldorj was born with cerebral palsy—a condition that renders him unable to control his motor movements. He speaks and walks with great difficulty, but cheerfully declares "there is no limit to inspiration," when asked about living with his condition. In Mongolia, many people with physical disabilities are effectively confined to their homes. Like most developing countries, Mongolia lacks public infrastructure such as ramps. School can be just five steps out of reach for a wheelchair-bound child.
Only a handfull of buildings in Ulaanbaatar are equipped with ramps, says Chuluundolgor Bat of the Mongolian Association of Wheelchair Users. Rendered paraplegic in an accident when she was 16, Bat says the only reason she finished college was thanks to constant family assistance.
"I always had a family member by my side throughout college to carry me [up staircases] to my classes. Not everyone is as fortunate to have supportive families who can afford the time and money," she says.
Mongolia ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009, scripting several laws on disabled persons’ rights into the constitution, such as inclusive education, access to public transport and the right to employment. But few mechanisms exist to implement or monitor implementation of laws, says Selenge Sambuu, director of the Association of Parents of Disabled Children (APDC), a non-profit that campaigns for legislation to address disabled children’s needs.
"There's nothing happening to properly survey and diagnose children and categorize their disabilities,” she says. “Often it's poorly qualified doctors or even teachers who decide if a child is disabled simply because the child is not doing well at school.” Sambuu tells the story of a village toddler diagnosed with cerebral palsy by local medical workers. When he was 16, a visiting team of German doctors identified him as autistic.
"Improper diagnosis is like closing the door on a child. Early intervention is a must to help these children," she says.
Many children with physical disabilities are not accepted by mainstream schools and often end up segregated in special-needs schools where they are prepared for a life separate from society.
Including disabled children in regular schools provides a motivating environment for disabled children and sensitizes able-bodied children, says Sambuu: "When kids understand disabled people are normal except for an impairment, as adults they won't harbor negative attitudes about disability."
Even worse, most disabled children don’t attend school at all.
According to a 2008 survey by the Ministry of Social Welfare and Labor, only 21 percent of disabled children attend regular schools, while 5.8 percent attend special-needs schools. The rest, the report suggests, simply don’t go to school.
Such segregation often starts a vicious cycle of poverty. The State Social Welfare Office estimates that nearly 80 percent of disabled persons in Mongolia live below the poverty line. With government benefits for disabled persons at 30,000 tugrik (approximately $23) per month and another 30,000 tugrik per quarter to cover medical expenses, most disabled persons are unable to afford the treatment they need, activists say.
Zulaa Batchimeg, whose five-year-old daughter Emuujin was born with hip dysplasia – an abnormal development of the hip joints – has seen doctors’ bills send the family into debt. Batchimeg recently spent over a million tugrik (almost $800) on surgery and medicines, most of it borrowed. Although medical care is technically free in Mongolia, specialized surgery and related costs are extra.
For physically disabled adults, many of whom were denied proper education when they were young, employment prospects are bleak. Only about 2 percent of 69,000 adults with disabilities surveyed by the Independent Trade Union of Disabled Persons of Mongolia, a lobby, have salaried jobs. “And they are usually people with mild to moderate disabilities sustained mainly from injuries or accidents,” as adults, said Enkhbayar Luvsdamba, the union’s director. People with congenital impairments "almost never" secure proper jobs.
This is despite a government decree mandating companies employ one disabled worker for every 25 able-bodied. Failing that, employers are required to pay a fine equaling half the minimum salary (about $54 per month) to the Social Welfare Fund for Disabled persons. But that legislation does little to change attitudes in the workplace.
"Most companies prefer to pay the fine rather than spend more to make arrangements to accommodate disabled persons," said Luvsdamba.
Pearly Jacob is a freelance journalist based in Ulaanbaatar.