It is estimated that around 172,000 people in Kyrgyzstan are living with disabilities. 13,000 suffer from visual impairments. Sadly, many of these people are hidden. They are unemployed and isolated from society, largely as a result of poor road infrastructure and a lack of facilities and transport options that enable them to travel safely and independently.
Indeed, it is well established that people with disabilities are more vulnerable on the roads, as highlighted in the WHO World Report on Disability “people with disabilities are at a higher risk of non-fatal unintentional injury from road traffic crashes”. Therefore, much more care and understanding needs to be taken to address the specific requirements of disabled people as road users to ensure their safety and rights are met. A perspective also supported by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 11.7 which aims to “provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities” by 2030.
In many EASST countries, people with disabilities are marginalised due to poor mobility. As a result, EASST is conducting a series of studies into the relationship between disability, mobility and road risk, and providing recommendations to policy makers on how to address this important issue. Based on work already carried out in Moldova and Belarus, EASST partners, Road Safety Kyrgyzstan, have now also conducted survey work among people with disabilities in Bishkek in order to obtain information that will help us to understand how people with disabilities travel, and what problems they face as pedestrians, public transport users, and, in rare cases, as drivers.
Among those surveyed 50 per cent had loco-motor impairments (using wheelchairs, walking sticks, crutches) and 50 per cent suffered from visual impairments. 55 per cent were women, and 80 per cent were of ‘working age’ (between 20 – 60 years old). Around a third of working age respondents were unemployed.
The survey found severe inadequacies in terms of inclusive and accessible public spaces for disabled people in Kyrgyzstan.
Of all those surveyed 85 per cent described moving about as pedestrians as either “impossible” (46%) or “very difficult” (39%). Among the main reasons for this feeling was the high prevalence of uneven and broken roads and pavements. Almost 90 per cent of respondents urged that if there could be one change to improve mobility for disabled people, it would be resurfacing work on roads and pavements.
Slippery, icy walkways during Kyrgyzstan’s long winter months were also highlighted as a serious issue. So much so that as the Road Safety team began conducting their research in December, they were unable to meet with a number of respondents who were “forced to stay at home”. In addition, it was found that many disabled people were actually forced to halt work on developing their own small enterprises during the winter, as they simply could not leave the house due to untreated walkways and roads. Ukay Muratalieva, Head of the Society of Disabled Girls, characterised this sad situation, saying, “We get out in the spring”!
A number of other infrastructure issues were also highlighted as inhibiting accessibility including a lack of ramps (or issues with their location and angle), the height of curbs, lack of handrails and scarcity of elevators in buildings.
Access to public transport was reported as being equally poor, particularly in terms of meeting the needs of wheelchair users. As such, 93 per cent of wheelchair users reported that they never use public transport (buses, trolleybuses, and mini buses), with 73 per cent describing it as “impossible” to use due to high steps preventing them from boarding. Although the city has recently purchased a number of low-floor trolleybuses with ramps, most disabled people are unaware of this.
Access to public transport was found to be slightly better for those with visual impairments, who use public transport more often to get to work or college. However, well over half still reported difficulties such as overcrowding and a lack of auto informers announcing stops and route numbers meaning that they have to rely on the help of others.
As an alternative, taxis are used more frequently by people with disabilities but even so, 75 per cent reported using them only once a month or less. Taxis are expensive, and can be, for young women in particular, a dangerous alternative. As girls from the “Nazik kyz” Association (an organisation for girls with disabilities) reported; there are frequently incidences of harassment by the drivers who take advantage of their vulnerability.
In general it was felt that community attitudes towards disabled people were good, with 80 per cent noting a willingness of the general public to help when necessary. However, significant barriers to mobility keep people with disabilities isolated from public life and prohibit them from making an economic contribution to society.
If anything, this survey has revealed a vital need for change. Authorities need to take the issue of mobility seriously and commit to improving road infrastructure and transport accessibility to help disabled people integrate into public life and to learn, work and live more fully.