BY KELLY CHAIB DE MARES
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
The outbreak of the COVID – 19 infection that has spread throughout the world, has transformed the priorities of the international community, altered national dynamics, changing plans for everyone. This article should be reporting a story about the participation of the Azerbaijani delegation at the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo. However, due to the current situation, the Games were postponed to 24 August – 5 September 2021.
The above makes us wonder, how this pandemic has affected the lives of athletes, and the lives of the disabled people in general. These questions could go even further. How is Azerbaijan integrating this population into the society during this situation? Furthermore, what is the baseline that the State managed to establish, before this crisis started?
Acknowledging 3 December as the International Day of Disabled Persons, last year, the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of the Population, published information about the figures in the country. According to the report, there are about 620,000 people with disabilities, 6.4% of Azerbaijan’s population; 60% of which, are children, 10% are veterans of the Karabakh war, with 0.8% of casualties from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. 30% are people with physical disabilities.
To align State protection to this population with international standards, Azerbaijan ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol in January 2009, becoming one of the first countries in the region to do so. In October 2015, Azerbaijan, along with the 192 United Nations members, adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, committed to achieving specific goals in education, health, employment, inequality, and accessibility for people with disabilities.
Since then, the international community has directed its efforts to achieve a change in the language, and in the approach used by Azerbaijani society to attend to its disabled population. As language is the first means of discrimination, not only the media and the public servants, but even regular citizens should be aware of the terminology they use. Unfortunately, the use of disparaging and degrading references is widespread, e.g., using the word “minors” instead of “children” /”invalid” instead of “disabled.”
In addition to implementing the agreed language, society must adopt the human rights-based model. It is still a prevalent belief in Azerbaijan, that disability is primarily a problem of social welfare (medical model) where people with disabilities are considered to need a lot of extra care and assistance, and are not permitted to live their own lives.
In the words of Chantelle McCabe in the UNICEF’s report “Situation Assessment: People with Disabilities in Azerbaijan 2011”, the social model of disability is:
“a rights-based approach which holds that disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and active participation in society on an equal basis with others, rather than from the impairment itself.”
However, there is a political will and an awareness of the general public in Azerbaijan, to increase the rights of disabled people, to allow them full and active participation in society, on an equal basis with others.
Without a doubt, sport is a powerful tool for social integration. With this goal in mind, the Azerbaijan Paralympic Organization has been training athletes with disabilities and ensuring their inclusion in society since February 1996, with full support from the government.
The National Paralympic Committee of Azerbaijan Republic, participated for the first time in the X Summer Paralympic Games held in Atlanta in 1996, with just two athletes in two sports. Since then, the Organization has participated in five Paralympic Games, in which seven athletes (two of them, women) have won nine gold medals. Currently, the Committee unites more than 1,000 athletes involved in 14 summer and three winter sports, in different categories as visual impairment and physical disability.
Rufat Hajili, Head of International Relations Marketing Department of the Committee, explains how these achievements have led to the popularization of para-sports in Azerbaijan, and the involvement of more people with disabilities, including many children willing to follow the steps of their role models. This was the reason for the establishment of the Children’s Paralympic Committee in 2013.
“And of course not every person has the ability or desire to do sport,” clarifies Rufat, the motivation of the Committee, to cooperate with another worldwide movement: The Abilympic, the Olympics of abilities. The concept was developed in Japan in 1972, based on the model of the WorldSkills competition and the Paralympic Games. The event tests skills in five categories: Services, Information and Communications Technology, Industry, Craft, and Food.
The 1st national final of the Abilympics was held in Tokyo in 1981, to commemorate the United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons. The 3rd event in Hong Kong in 1991, led to the establishment of the International Abilympic Federation. The competitions are usually held once every four years; however, the gap has varied between 3 – 6 years: Colombia, 1985, Australian, 1995, the Czech Republic, 2000, India, 2003, Japan, 2007, Korea, 2011, France, 2016. The 10th Abilympics were planned to be held in Russia this year, but has also been postponed due to COVID – 19.
The cooperation between the National Paralympic Committee of Azerbaijan and the International Abilympic Federation, aims to promote social awareness in the field of skills development and employment, locally and internationally of persons with disabilities; as well as stimulating their desire to participate in economic activities at the same time. To achieve these goals, one of the first steps is the establishment of the Abilympic federation in Azerbaijan. Therefore, Rufat is working on expanding the support to different foundations, that work with this population in the country.
Moreover, the International Department of the National Paralympic Committee, promotes the current philosophy of the Organization: The Athletes are Unstoppable. Under this campaign, with support from the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, there is also a call to integrate large companies in the Paralympic movement through their Corporate Social Responsibility Police.
The Committee requires as much support as possible to continue with these projects, but also to overcome the most prominent current challenge – as Rufat Hajili indicated – to ensure the accessibility of all sports practices for people with disabilities living in the regions.
The first paralympic sports complex with international standards in the CIS, was built in Sumgayit in 2008. The Committee has a regional branch in Ganja. Last year, in cooperation with international partners, the Organization trained certified accessibility specialists around the country. Even so, many cities do not have the appropriate conditions to allow this training, making it challenging to bring athletes together from all over Azerbaijan.
Rufat also recognizes, that in the current pandemic climate, persons with disabilities have valuable experience to offer, of how to thrive in conditions of isolation and alternate working arrangements, that the Organization is willing to learn and share.
As mentioned before, due to COVID – 19, the Tokyo 2020 Games were postponed. Thirty-two athletes of seven sports, who should have traveled to Shika in Japan, ten days before the competitions, took part in the training camp. Despite the situation, the Paralympians are still training hard, in the framework of the campaign “Stay at home but do not stay away from sports,” keeping online communication with trainers and posting their workout routines on social media.
A great example of an unstoppable athlete in the times of the coronavirus, is Afag Sultanova, who is trying to keep her place in the rankings to compete in the Paralympic Games, postponed until 2021. She is a Bakuvian, born in 1987, a world champion Judoka, a gold Paralympic medal, mother of two kids, and wife of a supportive husband, who is also a professional judo sportsman.
At the age of four, she was already a combat sports lover, and since then, Afag has overcome multiple obstacles. First, she needed to convince her parents to allow a girl to practice sports – something that she achieved at just eight years old. Her determination led her to win the European Youth and World Champion in 2008. Unfortunately, an injury impaired her vision, but instead of giving up, she recovered her shape to become a Paralympic judo gold medal winner in London 2012. She also received a gold medal at the Islamic Games in 2017.
Afag has set this goal for herself to compete in the Summer Paralympics in Tokyo, with the aim of bringing back a gold medal to Azerbaijan next year. Something that she is very likely to achieve, considering her self-confidence: “I continue my training. I train at home and on the porch. In such circumstances, staying in shape is not easy, but nowadays, every athlete in the world faces the same problems. Returning to sport and performing successfully again is a very difficult task, but this is what I have already managed to do.”
Work in Progress
The exposure of such achievements are a significant advance with the disabled persons agenda, but it is necessary to continue improving. To integrate people with disabilities into society is a work in progress, as Gwen Burchell’s work can testify. She is a United Kingdom citizen who arrived in Azerbaijan in 1997, with the intention of developing social projects; therefore, establishing United Aid for Azerbaijan (UAFA) in 1998 with a £500 budget, to “aid long-term development of life in Azerbaijan, with particular focus on children, health and education.”
Though registered in the UK, UAFA operates like a local Non-Governmental Organization, operating exclusively in Azerbaijan. During these 22 years, UAFA has grown to be a well-known Organization both inside Azerbaijan and across the international development sector; aiming to support the modernization of national legislation, advising in public policy implementation and the transfer of knowledge, taking into account that child welfare and disability are issues that need high-level coordination, with a multidimensional social solution.
UAFA’s primary goal is to reduce the number of children in state care, through deinstitutionalization efforts, which requires a network of services that families can access in their communities. In this regard, Ms. Burchell describes their strength – identifying different services and then convincing relevant governmental bodies to provide them, mainly early interventions from 0 to 3 years; community-based approach services from 0 to 18+ years, and inclusive preschool programs.
The ideal situation is to identify a child with disabilities, at the age of 0 to 3, in order to have a significant impact on the long term development, reducing the dependence of the government benefits, providing education and employment possibilities for when they reach adulthood. With this purpose, UAFA is working with AZERSIGORTA, the State Agency for mandatory insurance, who is currently taking over services for early intervention around the country.
With the community-based approach services, children with disabilities grow up with UAFA as a family. Gwen tells the success story of two male teenagers from Ganja, who came to the Foundation due to their inability to walk, who both received accompaniment and education until they achieved their dream of joining the Paralympic Committee of Azerbaijan.
To provide these services with long term sustainability, Gwen has been able to overcome the main obstacle: funding. After the legislation for NGOs changed in Azerbaijan in 2016, restricting grants access, UAFA became an umbrella for social enterprise development, looking for investments, mentoring, and training small social businesses that can generate different levels of income, to keep the structure running smoothly.
These kinds of social enterprises are extremely opportunistic for disabled people to participate effectively in the open labor market; finding a solution to one of the conclusions made by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, at the initial report of Azerbaijan, in compliance with the convention (2014) on work and employment. Recently, Azerbaijan has witnessed the creation of these types of companies, where the workers are mainly disabled people, eg., BUTA Art and Sweets: an online platform that sells traditional handmade desserts made by women with special needs.
Now UAFA is facing the challenges of this pandemic. Fortunately, the Organization has a strong team that can confront these difficulties. With a presence in 22 regions in Azerbaijan, Gwen’s staff are providing their services to the families of children with disabilities via Whatsapp, as is the primary online tool available for the community. They have been pleasantly amazed at their success: “The whole family have come together to support the child, brothers and sisters, playing with them, with parents finding different things around the house to use in the rehabilitation process.”
They have not been forgotten
There is still a lot of work to do to ensure the persons with disabilities in Azerbaijan get access to education, healthcare, income opportunities, or the ability to participate in the community. Of course, the pandemic intensifies these challenges and produces new threats, as many of them are more likely to develop severe health conditions. Expectantly, they will also be more affected by the predicted economic crisis.
However, there are many initiatives happening to integrate people with disabilities into the Azerbaijani society; from the international community, the national government, donors, organizations, social enterprises, and individuals. Even though it is tough to measure attitudinal changes, empirical analysis can be performed.
As Gwen points out, to make people in Azerbaijan aware, is not a difficult task – this country is famous for its tolerance to difference. “This is not a racism issue; it is just a lack of knowledge. “This can be solved only with information dissemination. At a community level, individuals now have more awareness. Now, children with disabilities are seen at schools and playgrounds, integrating with the rest of society.
This paradigm shift is even more visible at the public level. For all official events, the ministries integrate the children with disabilities from UAFA, for cultural presentations. Gwen also recalls the strong message sent by the government to the society in the European Games’ opening ceremony, when Ilham Zakiyev – a gold medal paralympic with a visual impairment – was responsible for the prestigious role of bringing the torch into the stadium.
Rufat also recalls when the Children’s Paralympic Committee was first created, with many concerned parents of their child integrating into society. Fortunately, there are more than 200 children today with disabilities, from all over the regions of Azerbaijan, participating in the Games held annually since 2015.
Afag is also a witness of how the attitudes towards people with disabilities in Azerbaijan, have improved over the past ten years. She claims that “the increased activity of people with disabilities in social life has prompted these changes, “which is why she encourages disabled people to do what they can.