Azerbaijan's Disabled in Poverty Trap
“I’ve applied to private firms but once they find out I’m disabled, they make their excuses and indicate that they don’t want me,” Jeyhun Mammadov said.
Now 24, Mammadov is actively looking for work. He taught himself computer programming because no university would accept him, and completed his secondary education under a home schooling scheme.
He is paralysed from the waist down, which means he is classified in the highest of three categories the authorities use to define disability and set benefits.
“If my disability status is no obstacle to working, why do I have to sit at home and depend on a 55-manat [70 US dollars monthly] pension and on my parents?” he asked. “With my computer skills, I could easily do any kind of office work. Computer specialists have to sit down to do their job anyway. So why can’t I get a job? I’m physically, not mentally impaired.”
Disabled Azerbaijanis like Mammadov are caught between employers who do not want to take them on and benefit levels they cannot survive on.
Azerbaijan’s labour ministry says only ten or 12 per cent of the 450,000 people registered as disabled are in work. They receive monthly benefits but the sums are small. Mammadov, for example, is on the highest benefit scale but the money does not stretch to his outgoings on medical treatment, food and utilities.
“The size of the benefits that disabled people get is just laughable,” Rafiq Tamrazov, a sociologist and member of Civil Society Support Coalition. “If the state cannot provide for the disabled, then it should at least allow them to work and support themselves. A disabled head of a household gets 55 manats [a month]. How can he support a family on this.”
Under a law passed in 2005, all companies and organisations in Azerbaijan have set quotas for the number of disabled people they must employ. Between three and five per cent of workplaces must go to people in one of the three disablement categories. The only exceptions are small companies, the security services, the army and local government.
Disabled rights activists say that having a law on paper is not enough, and that more needs to be done – starting with providing the education that people will need to apply for decent jobs.
Yusif Bakirov of the League to Defend Children’s Rights recalls the Soviet period, when there were special schools for the disabled and assistance for those going on to higher education and employment.
“Now the disabled are left without any attention being paid to them at all,” Bakirov said. “Although there is a state programme aimed at improving the lives of disabled people, it isn’t being put into practice.”
Musa Quliyev, deputy chair of the Azerbaijani parliament’s social policy committee, says the quota system is not working, and “the main reason is negligence and indifference on the part of state employees”.
More broadly, he said, “the majority of people don’t appreciate the importance of disabled people participating in society on equal terms. We need to address this systematically.”
Azerbaijan’s official human rights ombudsman, Elmira Suleymanova, says commercial firms as well as the state should fulfil their obligations as employers.
“In European countries, people in wheelchairs can go to work just fine. Jobs and professions are provided for them,” she said. “If every company were to take on just one disabled person, their problems would soon be solved. It would speed up their integration into society.”
Other analysts noted that disabled people faced obstacles like the lack of wheelchair access to public spaces and workplaces, including in government-funded institutions.
Qulnaz Qanbarli is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.