Democracy Camps in the Kyrgyz Republic benefit Students with Disabilities
The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) recently completed its annual Democracy Camp program in the Kyrgyz Republic, which brought together 120 secondary school students from across the country, including – for the first time – seven students with disabilities.
The IFES Summer Democracy Camp is a ten-day event that teaches young people critical thinking, leadership skills, and teamwork; exposes students to civic and democratic values; encourages civic engagement; and introduces the concept of project management – all through innovative, interactive tools such as games, art, role play and the use of multimedia technology. Students are urged to design and manage a project that strives to improve an area in their respective communities or schools. The project development component of the camp experience allows alumni to share what they have learned and inspire others to find opportunities to be active citizens. This summer camps were held from July 15-25 in the southern region of Osh and from August 3-13 at Lake Issyk-Kul in the north. For each camp session, IFES worked with local disabled persons organizations to identify a handful of students with disabilities to participate.
Young persons with disabilities face myriad challenges in the Kyrgyz Republic, owing to a lack of equal access to education, economic opportunity and political agency. They face a deep-seeded cultural bias, rooted in the idea that members of the disabled community are incapable of living a normal life or operating at the same level as others. They are often viewed and treated as though they are incompetent and in need of aid or sympathy. This has made it difficult for persons with disabilities to be taken seriously as professionals, individuals and citizens.
This year IFES included seven participants with disabilities in the camp program. These students not only participated, made friends and assimilated, but they also flourished. They led groups, inspired their peers, and most importantly, showed the other camp participants that they persons with disabilities are not, in fact, so different from those without.
One camp participant, Nazar Bakytov, a 16-year old from Issyk-Kul has cerebral palsy and has spent his whole life being treated as though he was unable to perform simple tasks because of his disability. Yet, it was never Nazar’s disability that debilitated him, but rather other people’s lack of confidence in his abilities. For Nazar, IFES’ Democracy Camp changed that. Speaking after returning home from camp he said, “Today, all the guys living in the city met up in a café, and so did I! On my way home Dali and Garrik went with me to the marshrutka; when I got out of the marshrutka, I got home without any help! But before I was afraid to go outside! Thanks to Democracy Camp I became more independent!”
Like Nazar, other camp participants with disabilities have experienced similar forms of empowerment and acceptance. The camp provided them not only with the confidence to realize that they could operate on an even playing field with everyone else, but also with the knowledge that they are equal to any other member of Kyrgyz society. Likewise for students without disabilities, they stopped treating their disabled peers as though they had a disability. Indeed, they merely treated them like people.