Expert opinion on UNDP’s “Social Inclusion through Leadership Skills for Disabled Women in Turkmenistan”


Photo: UNDP/Turkmenistan

Arkadi Toritsyn, Specialist on the education for children with special needs of the Ministry of Education of Ontario, Canada. Mr. Toritsyn assessed the “Social Inclusion through Leadership Skills for Disabled Women in Turkmenistan” project of support of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Deaf and Blind Society of Turkmenistan (DBS).

UNDP: Is this your first experience of working in Turkmenistan on disability issues?

Mr. Toritsyn: As you know, Turkmenistan was the first Central Asian country to accede to the CRPD in September 2008 and ratified its Optional Protocol in 2010. Two years ago, I had a privilege to work with UNDP, DBST and multiple ministries and other national partners on developing strategies to enhance Turkmenistan’s compliance with United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). It was a very interesting assignment.

UNDP: What are the major issues that people with disabilities face around the world?

Mr. Toritsyn: On average, 10% of the population of the world has some form of disability. But how many persons with disabilities do you see on the streets? Social exclusion, low educational attainment, unemployment, low self-esteem and limited opportunities to participate in political and social life are frequent parts of persons with disabilities’ daily experience. A very low number of persons with disabilities are employed or attend universities. The stereotyping of and prejudice against them are still widespread and their families experience social stigma so that many persons with disabilities have to stay at home. In society, there is a genuine and widespread lack of understanding that most persons with disabilities could in fact function effectively at work, school, and with society, if given adequate support.

UNDP: What are the major outcomes and outputs of the project that you see as the most influential for the participants of the project?

Mr. Toritsyn:  Participants of the UNDP project of support are women with hearing and visual impairments. During the project, participants have increased their knowledge in terms of in democratic institutions, modern socio-economic-political processes, gender issues and gained computer skills. Many have also increased their management capacity and leadership skills, and implemented a number of initiatives to engage people with disabilities into social activities. A number of women with disabilities took managerial positions inside the DBST. Most importantly, is that women acquired knowledge and strengthened their confidence to achieve their lives objectives. They’ve opened businesses and organized interest groups. This contributes to the next level of the project which is revising of the study curricular of the vocational schools to provide better access to education for the persons with disabilities.

UNDP: What do you think is the main impact of the UNDP project?

Mr. Toritsyn:  During the project, hearing and visually impaired women met with representatives of the highest governing and law making authorities of Turkmenistan. This is the first step in establishing the policy dialogues with government. For now, the Government of Turkmenistan does not have national disability strategy, no specific objectives and targets in disability reforms and the long-term priorities in supporting persons with disabilities are unclear. However, women were able to explain their needs, such as need to publish books in Braille, and their voices were heard. For example, the printer was ordered to publish books in Braille and the area surrounding DBST enterprise in Mary was improved to address their needs.

The biggest impact of the project is that it managed to achieve dramatic changes in mindsets of many decision-makers and women with disabilities on disability. State officials and leaders of diverse organizations learned that persons with disabilities are the same people as persons without disabilities who would like to study, get good jobs, get married and pursue other opportunities in life and that society has to do much more than it is doing now to help them achieve their goals.

The project beneficiaries improved awareness of their strengths and weakness and acceptance of their disability and became proactive. It helped women leaders to believe in themselves and built their self-advocacy skills so that many of them are not afraid to advocate for themselves or on behalf of others with decision makers at the national and local levels, business owners, in stores, hospitals, with social service providers and other fields. One women leader told me that she is not afraid to tell in the hospital that she has the same rights as everybody else and will wait in line but will demand the same services that are provided to non-disabled individuals.

It is very important that UNDP makes an effort to make the voices of the members of the vulnerable groups of people to be heard, as they are the best source of inquiry when it comes to decision making on the topics and the issues that related to them. It is also very plausible that the government of Turkmenistan hears these voices and addresses the issues that they raise.

UNDP: What would be your suggestion about how to improve the project? 

Mr. Toritsyn: The project was successfully completed and now it is time to go broader and eliminate the barriers that persons with disabilities face. They would like to go to school, get a job and start a family and the society should help them to achieve these goals. The Government is providing a lot of support to persons with disabilities, but the employers should be willing to hire persons with disabilities, teachers should be trained to support them and society should be welcoming them as equal members and not just as charity beneficiaries. So, it is the whole society role to eliminate the barriers that persons with disabilities face.

The next logical step would be developing of a National Disability Strategy that would clearly set long term priorities in the area of disability, set specific targets for partners and involve persons with disabilities into its development and implementation. I also believe more can be done in the area of employment. For many persons with disabilities, work is key to economic independence, health and well-being and full participation in the community. Employment is not only economically important for persons with disabilities as it helps to increase their incomes but it also a means to improve self-worth and social acceptance and respect.

Changes in public attitudes are necessary to advancing the inclusion of persons with disabilities. The right policies and strategies can be adopted but people’s beliefs about individuals with disabilities determine how they are treated in all aspects of their lives. If the public has charity views of disability and believes that persons with disabilities are incapable of full participation in society, these attitudes shape the processes of their inclusion in society. Awareness-raising campaigns at the national and local levels should be conducted to reinforce the positive image of persons with disabilities as holders of all the human rights and to break down cultural barriers and prejudices against persons with disabilities.

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