Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Disabled People Invisible in Azerbaijan

People with disabilities still live on the margins of society.
By Tamara Grigoryeva
In a Baku apartment, a pale thin boy in a blue sweater and tracksuit trousers used his small fists to haul himself up in bed and pulled a wheelchair closer to the edge of the bed so that he could get into him.

He wheeled himself over to the door to answer it and let in a guest.

Ilkin Gafarov is 13 and is unable to walk on his own because of a congenital condition which means his legs have not developed fully. He will be confined to a wheelchair for life.

“I’ve never gone to school - I’m tutored at home,” said Ilkin.

His mother Afyat said, “He is very shy and shuns company. I think he’s simply grown tired of all these sympathetic and embarrassed glances from passers-by and acquaintances.

“Of course, he wants to play with other children. He wants to have friends – boys and girls. I often find him at the window watching kids of his age-group running one after another, playing and laughing … Ilkin doesn’t laugh very much.”

Ilkin himself rarely complains, and the look in his eyes is mature beyond his years. He is very good at computer programming and spends hours in front of a computer screen.

“Maybe I will be able to go to university in future and become a famous programmer,” he said wistfully.

Ilkin is lucky that his parents can afford to hire tutors for him. Azerbaijani schools are not equipped to deal with pupils with disabilities, who have to go to special schools instead.

The education ministry says a new law on integrated education is beginning to bring disabled children into mainstream schools. The law says children with physical disabilities should attend general schools like any other pupils.

However, before the law can really take effect, school premises will have to be adapted, a transformation which could take many years.

The disabled are still a virtually invisible group in Azerbaijan. According to the government statistics agency, there are around 275,000 people with various physical disabilities.

These days, they are no longer referred to as “invalids” but as “people with disabilities”. But apart from that little has changed.

Lotus, a centre for disability issues, says the country lacks no entrances, ramps, lifts or toilets designed for people with disabilities, so public buildings, underground passages and railway stations are no-go areas for them.

People classed as being in the “first category”, the most seriously affected, receive a monthly benefit of 65 manats (74 US dollars), the next category 45 manats and the third group 24 manats. They also receive concessions when buying a flat or taking out a mortgage loan, while veterans injured in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict are entitled to a free apartment and medical aid.

Recipients say the benefits are pitifully low.

“All these privileges are enough to make a cat laugh,” said Viktor Stepanovich, 81. His disability dates from 1943, after he went to war as a 17-year-old.

“I am a group two invalid. I’m old and need money badly - medicines are very expensive,” he said. “Prices are soaring, and taxes have gone up several times.” Listing the battles he took part in the Second World War, the old man brushed away the tears welling up in his eyes.

“I was at a medical clinic the other day,” he said. “I had hardly entered the waiting room when they asked me for money. And what’s worse, the doctor won’t even look at you unless you put a “shirvan” [two manats] in his pocket. He doesn’t give a damn for your [war] service or your disabilities.”

Disabled people also complain of discrimination when they look for jobs.

“I live off my parents, although I think I could work in a business,” said Irana, 25. “I have applied repeatedly to the labour registry office, but they have never replied.”

There are a few projects that offer some hope and encouragement to the disabled. Outside Baku is a “Rest and Labour Home for Young Disabled”, founded in 1999 and housing over 200 people.

Staff at the centre said that various courses such as dress-making, knitting, drawing and embroidery, had been run for the residents with assistance from the American humanitarian organisation Umkor. Art works produced at the centre are now displayed and sold at exhibitions.

“I love to draw,” said Seilan, a young artist who lives at the centre. “My drawings are reflections of my thoughts, dreams and fears - everything I have on my mind.”

In her works, the girl depicts the streets of Baku’s old town, green hills and gloomy forests. One of her most admired drawings is of a melancholy girl who may or may not be Seilan herself.

Another resident, Ganira Abilova, has become famous as a carpet weaver. She said she had received orders from California and dreamed of showing her work to Mehriban Alieva, the wife of Azerbaijan’s president.

“Also, all my life I’ve been dreaming about a house of my own,” she added quietly.

Tamara Grigoryeva is a correspondent with APA news agency in Baku

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