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Unexpected Result for Disabled Protesters in Kazakstan

Campaign for better wheelchairs makes no headway with local government but prompts gift from foreign donor.
A campaigning group of disabled people in northeastern Kazakstan has successfully drawn attention to what they say is the low quality of wheelchairs provided by the state.

In the first demonstration of its kind, the group gathered outside the provincial department for employment and social affairs in the city of Pavlodar early last month to air allegations that officials had bought a consignment of wheelchairs that were totally unfit for purpose.

Describing the wheelchairs as “coffins” and “tanks”, they said the hand-held levers used to move them were unsuitable for anyone lacking full use of both arms. In addition, they said, the wheelchairs were too wide for many doorways, lifts and public toilets, and unable to cope with rough surfaces.

To make their point, the protestors parked the new wheelchairs outside the local government department, saying they wanted to return them.

The authorities earmarked 470,000 US dollars for the wheelchairs, which were charged at a hefty 460 dollars a time. Wheelchair-users questioned this price, saying there were cheaper and better ones on the market locally.

Yelena Yurchenko of Pavlodar’s Society for the Disabled, who returned her own wheelchair, alleges that there was a substantially discrepancy between the funds allocated to the welfare department by the state and the actual value of the items delivered.

“The [list] price of the wheelchairs doesn’t correspond to their real cost,” she said.

Nina Kim, the deputy head Pavlodar’s social affairs department, met the protesters after the demonstration was over, and insisted the wheelchairs were suitable for use in the home and outside.

“Anyone who isn’t happy about it can write to the head of the city employment and social programmes department, also giving the reason why they’re rejecting them [wheelchairs],” she said at the meeting.

In a letter to the social affairs agency, the protestors said wheelchair users should have been polled beforehand to ascertain their technical requirements. They cited practice in other countries such as Germany, where disabled people are issued vouchers with which they can select the wheelchair model most suited to their needs, up to a stated value.

The local authorities dismissed the suggestion that people should have been given the money, arguing that they might have spent it on something else.

The disabled pressure group also wrote to the chief prosecutor in Pavlodar region requesting an investigation into the way the money was spent. The regional governor’s office later issued a statement saying prosecutors had found no wrongdoing in the way the purchase tender was handled.

The allegations of mismanagement come after a case in March this year in which an official was convicted of buying wheelchairs at an inflated list price.

In November, a donor in the United States – the Church of the Latterday Saints, or Mormons – stepped in with a gift of 250 wheelchairs for the disabled people of Pavlodar, including some for a home for the elderly and a centre for children with cerebral palsy.

According to a report in Nasha Zhizn, a Pavlodar newspaper, the recipients were asked individually in advance what their specific needs were, and each wheelchair was customised accordingly. Although the wheelchairs were provided free, the Society for the Disabled noted that the cost price was just 61 dollars each.

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