I have no words to ""convey how excited I am to spread the news about the employment of the people with disabilities on my first program day in Almaty, Kazakhstan. I am also proud of the U.S. State Department, working to break stigma that limits inclusion, employment, and engagement of people with disabilities around the world. Without the leadership of the people I work with, like Sara Nelson, I would not be able to reach out to share the hope and promise of freedom through competitive employment for people with disabilities throughout the world.

 What really impressed me is when I met my host, Veniamin Alayev, a disability champion, NGO leader and advisor to the mayor of Almaty regarding disability matters. I also loved meeting Lukerya Lonshakova, our translator for the week, who happens to be blind.  This is great!!! Great people with disabilities leading the way for freedom for others with disabilities in Kazakhstan.Lyazzat Kaltayeva. She is the Chairperson of SHYRAK, the Public Association of Women with Disabilities

 My first meeting was having coffee in our hotel with an entrepreneur, Lyazzat Kaltayeva. She is the Chairperson of SHYRAK, the Public Association of Women with Disabilities and is a wheelchair user.  She is also the first woman with a disability elected deputy in a municipality. SHYRAK is an NGO dealing with issues and concerns for woman with disabilities. She told us about the obstacles women with disabilities face every day. It is not surprising that they have the highest unemployment of any group.

 In Kazakhstan, like other Asian countries, women with disabilities are still struggling to have a voice. For example, when they are abused at home, they do not believe they should say anything. They are often marginalized. She explained the major obstacle facing people with disabilities is access to a good education. All people with disabilities go to a “special” school, only for students with disabilities. Even more astonishing is they go to schools specific to their disabilities. For example, schools for people who are deaf, blind, have mobility disability or are living with autism. Lyazzat is very impressive and professional. She is and will continue to make a difference!

 After this meeting, we met with members of the Federal Government; this agency is similar to the U.S. Department of Labor. I knew the story presented at this meeting would be different than the facts presented by Lyazzat and it was. According to the officials, the employment is high for people with disabilities! This happens all the time in developing countries. During our visit, I saw approximately 15 people meeting with representatives and discussing their career goals; we did not see people with disabilities. They had two specific counselors designated to speak with people with disabilities; they were separated from the other counselors. The government officials also told us they have video relay services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing; Mary asked to see how it worked…it did not work. They tried and tried and a couple of times you saw the interpreter and then lost seeing her. I cannot imagine how long this would take a person who is deaf to access services.

Next, they invited me into a room to present to about 35 professionals in the federal department.  No one had a disability. Mary and I were seated at a table with the members of the Department and I spoke for about 40 minutes. Mary joined in the discussion to talk about the DEI; we wanted to show them best practices in the US. When I asked for questions at the end of my presentation, no one had time to ask as the government officials answered for them.

We next went to Paradise, a great restaurant. Veniamin kept teasing me about how he wanted me to see Paradise in Kazakhstan. We met with Rulsan Taipov, an entrepreneur with a visual disability. He owns a small printing business with about six employees.  At one time, had 20 employees, but due to the costs of materials increasing and no ability to increase the price of his product, his company is smaller. He of course, has employed a few people with disabilities as part of the employee base. He explained how hard it is to find employment in Almaty as a person with a disability. It is obvious in this culture that people with disabilities are viewed as people who should live at home and receive government funding. Many people with disabilities live at home with their families, but the choices for work are few. Veniamin wanted me to meet people who have succeeded in the country. So far, both people were entrepreneurs. The lunch was delicious!

I was so impressed at our next meeting at Luch sveta with Leila Bairmova and two other mothers of children with disabilities. Luch sveta is called a social adaptation and rehabilitation center for children with disabilities. The center is in an old building on the top floor; they keep the back door locked as that is the only entrance, up three flights of steps. The inside is small with rooms for kids with disabilities to do art work and social engagement rehabilitation. What is amazing is that these three mothers pay for the rent and materials themselves. This is that example of the passion of a mother with a child with a disability. These children had autism and other mental health issues. I loved these women. They asked me if I do believe children with autism can find work? I explained that I hire people with autism frequently. They were so happy to hear hope.

Joyce Bender speakingWe next visited the American Corner, met with employees of the U.S. Consulate in Almaty, and spoke to a small group of people. While we were there, I met a 16-year-old girl, Rosa who came to hear me speak. She wants to learn English and study technology in the U.S. We encouraged her to research Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. I was so impressed Rosa came to this meeting. She told me someday she wants to help people the way I do and go to Africa and teach. Wow! I loved her. This visit was short, but just meeting her was powerful.

That evening we had dinner; Leila joined us and brought another mother of a child with a disability to meet me. Just the fact, that Leila would come to meet me again demonstrates the power of mothers as advocates. It is always that way!

Out first day was exciting!

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