Tuesday morning, we met Veniamin and our translator Lukerya after breakfast. Our first meeting of the day was with Mr. Kuanysh Ulasbekov at the National Chamber of Entrepreneurs. He awards grants from the Damu Foundation to people with disabilities to start their own businesses and to other businesses to hire people with disabilities. Although it is small foundation, it is exciting to see Kazakhstan encouraging people with disabilities to become entrepreneurs. Without any hope for employment, people with disabilities try to create a business to gain economic independence.
Our next meeting, a luncheon meeting had an enormous impact on me; I will never forget it! We met at a restaurant that hires people with disabilities, Ale and Pub, with women who were disability advocates. It is there I learned about people living with mental health disabilities in Kazakhstan. It seems that there are several institutions in Kazakhstan that house people with psychiatric disabilities. The institution in Almaty has 700 people locked in it and I mean locked in. When I found out that people in this institution were locked in and could not marry or basically had no rights, I realized these people were seen as sub-human. It was explained to me that this view came from “Soviet Thoughts”, in the past when Kazakhstan was a part of the Soviet Union. I learned that people in that institution cannot be paid to work because they are deemed incapable. From the stories I heard, I was horrified by treatment they receive!
In these institutions, the women and men are separately housed; but assault can happen from people who work in the institution. Many children who are orphans, somehow end up in this horrible place. Also, there are mothers who abandon their child because they believe their child is “different”; they have them institutionalized. And yes, it gets worse…people with epilepsy, like me, are institutionalized! The activist explained to me that people with epilepsy are institutionalize because of their behavior. I cannot express to you how this made me feel. As my new friend said, they are seen as “animals.” I will be going back to the U.S. talking to my friends at the Bazelon Center and AAPD to find out about human rights work in Asia. I will also talk to my close friends who are epileptologists. I will never forget this experience.
At 1:00, I was interviewed on Sector X by a new radio program; interviewers and producers were people with disabilities. This was the kick-off of the new radio station and I was the first guest! What an honor!
Next, I had a two-hour seminar with entrepreneurs with disabilities, disability advocates, and other stakeholders presenting on the employment of people with disabilities and best practices in the U.S. It was so exciting to hear about what we do in the U.S. It is amazing to the audience that people with disabilities can work in professional positions. We had a small reception after; the main question I am always asked is when I will return. I love everyone I meet!
We then had a dinner meeting with Ainura Shakenova from the Soros Foundation. She is awesome and a great defender of human rights. She gave me more information about the horrors of the mental health institution. In Kazakhstan, there are no protests by disability rights advocates; there is no ADAPT in Kazakhstan, because of fear of the government. These stories will inspire me to do something…to at least bring attention to this inhumane treatment, so people can gain back their freedom.