A New Era of Accessibility: How the Internet is Helping Disabled Kyrgyz Citizens Bridge Barriers, and their Ideas Cross Borders

Figure 1: An example of “wheelchair accessible” stairs at Bishkek’s railway station. Solutions like these satisfy the law without improving conditions for anyone. Photo by Gunner Bauer, 2022.

Wedged between the foreboding Tian Shan mountains to the south and the vast Kazakh Steppe to the north lies Bishkek, the capital city of the Kyrgyz Republic. This unique geographical positioning means that the entire city lies on a slope, akin to American cities such as Duluth and San Francisco. This relief has challenged the architects who helped build the city over the past century. With very few buildings standing on flat ground, most require the use of a stairway or ramp to access. This, coupled with the legacy of Soviet policy and engineering, has created numerous physical and societal barriers for citizens living with physical disabilities. Much of the city is outright inaccessible to wheelchair users, with few ramps or elevators to allow them to enter many of the city’s buildings. Fortunately, increased access to the internet has allowed these individuals to form online communities where they can share ideas and organize advocacy groups with both their neighbors and other disabled people abroad.

The history of improving society’s view towards disabled individuals in Central Asia reads not like a Horatio Alger novel, but instead a centuries-long thriller with peaks of hope and chasms of uncertainty. Amazingly, the region’s most powerful and famous ruler, Timur (1336-1405), was himself paralyzed in one half of his body, a result of an arrow wound he suffered as a youth.[1]  Nevertheless, this did not stop him from gaining prominence as a military leader over the Turkic tribesmen of the region. Timur became the first ruler of the Timurid dynasty and is renowned for his military prowess and tactical ingenuity.  He is the national hero of Uzbekistan, and has been immortalized through the erection of statues and monuments across Central Asia. In many of these statues, he is seen leaning on his cane. Instead of hiding his physical disability, these renditions celebrate his resilience and strength.  

While Timur has been venerated as a great nomadic conqueror in Central Asia, individuals with disabilities have not always received such acceptance in this region. When the Communists took control of Central Asia after the 1917 Revolution, reforms swept across the Steppe like a wild, banshee wind. Among these were new systems meant to provide care and stipends for disabled individuals, which through the Soviet eye meant all those unable to work at full capacity.[2] The initial implementation of these systems was slow and insignificant, but began shaping the world that Central Asians live in today. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Central Asian states finally gained political independence. They did not, however, free themselves of certain aspects of Soviet life. The new governments inherited a writing tradition, explained by Berkeley anthropologist Alexei Yurchak, as one which presupposes certain truths, and a political system in which it is perfectly normal to reuse old speeches, laws, and decrees, changing minor details as needed.[3] Consequently, the legacy of Soviet attitudes continues to influence contemporary perspectives regarding disability in Central Asia. 

This Soviet habit of copying and pasting manifested itself in the early days of the Kyrgyz Republic, and is crucial to understanding the current state of accessibility in the nation. The initial Kyrgyz law governing accessibility was a near identical copy of the Soviet doctrine.[4]  These Soviet policies were constructed in an era where the remedy to disability was to meet individuals’ most basic needs and keep them otherwise isolated from society. This is explained graphically in disabled Soviet author Valeri Fefelov’s book[5] “There are no Invalids[6] in the USSR!” (v SSSR Invalidov nyet!), the title of which is a quote from Moscow’s envoy to the 1980 Paralympic Committee, who outright denied the mere existence of physical disabilities behind the Iron Curtain. The institutions of medical treatment and hiding the disabled from society in faraway, remote sanitariums that accompanied this approach persisted into the early days of the Kyrgyz Republic, with many reports of disabled individuals being isolated from the world by both physical and societal barriers. For example, probing by researchers found that most care for individuals was performed in-home, with these citizens rarely interacting with their peers.[7] The levers of isolation show through distinctly in the education system, with a 2016 report finding only one fourth of disabled Kyrgyz citizens were completing primary school.[8] Moreover, attempts to reform the situation have been far from fruitful.  For example, the first article of the 2008 law on the rights of disabled individuals guarantees all citizens access to public transport, yet in a conversation I had with a local activist during 2022, they said the main thing they were lobbying for was ramps to allow wheelchair users to access bus platforms.

Despite the challenging circumstances faced by many living with disabilities in Kyrgyzstan, people are beginning to take things into their own hands. One young woman, Mohira Suyarkulova, found an ingenious way to circumvent some of these conditions. Suyarkalova, a scholar and activist, was seriously injured after being hit by a drunk driver coming home from a party one night. Her injuries were treated and the State sent a social worker to check up on her at home. In her article, “Nobody is Going to Want Her Like This” Suyarkulova describes feelings of deep depression at being isolated from society. While her bare needs were being satisfied, the lack of social interaction and bleak outlook on the future led to a deep sense of despondency. In short, Suyarkulova felt trapped. That was until she jumped online and found what she calls a “community of mutual help”,[9] where she found moral support and tutorials on everything from basic wheelchair skills to daring maneuvers, such as travelling up and down stairs in a wheelchair – something which many paraplegics in Bishkek preferred over the rollercoaster-like rails fitted to many of the city’s staircases to make them legally “wheelchair accessible.”

While Suyarkulova used the internet to connect with a community that spans across all borders of Central Asia, others are using it to empower local initiatives in Bishkek to help fellow citizens cross physical barriers that bar them from enjoying their own city. A great example of this is the Baan-Baan cafe near the city center. Using some spare lumber, the owner built a simple, makeshift ramp that allows easy access to wheelchairs and strollers. The cafe is proud of its commitment to improving accessibility and frequently shares their achievements on their social media pages.

On a larger scale, two charities and activist groups have been using Kyrgyzstan’s favorite form of social media, Instagram, to organize events, publicize their cause, and create visibility for a group so often overlooked by society and the government. 

The first and most famous of these groups is ‘Bridges’, a decades long project spearheaded by wealthy businessman and former politician Mirbek Asangariev, committed to improving accessibility for individuals with disabilities. In 2002, Asangariev helped establish one of the republic’s first disabled youth activism programs. A decade later he launched the political party, “For Life without Barriers” (Za zhizn’ bez bar’yerov[10]). Despite not securing a parliamentary seat in the 2020 elections, the party marked a significant achievement by leveraging online crowdfunding to raise over $80,000 – a substantial sum considering Kyrgyzstan’s modest population and average income. This impressive fundraising underscored the importance of accessibility to Kyrgyz voters. 

Asangariev is perhaps best known for founding Bridges Hotel in 2017, Kyrgyzstan’s first fully accessible hotel. They advertise this inclusivity extensively on their social media pages, and the building has become the unofficial rallying point for disabled rights activists throughout the city. Just this year, he has also founded a wheelchair accessible mountain resort. It is one thing to make the locations accessible, but another to launch an accompanying publicity campaign. Spreading a positive image of accessible infrastructure will only continue to normalize it across the nation.

The second group is Jarytyk, a charity and activist group focused on making direct impacts on individuals’ lives. The group was established in the wake of the Kyrgyz adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Disabled in 2019, which ended up being something of a letdown to many Kyrgyz activists. Asangariev’s party and many others had been pushing for this for decades, hoping it would lead to rapid change; it didn’t. Some papers were signed and very little changed, demonstrating how legal documents do not always engender tangible change.  The Kyrgyz Republic lacks the financial resources and government outreach to strong-arm rapid change the way the United States did after adopting the Americans with Disabilities act in 1990, or how Japan did after adopting the same UN convention as Kyrgyzstan in 2000. However, this setback became a catalyst for grassroots action and the establishment of small, focused organizations, such as Jarytyk. This group is known for lobbying for practical, cheap solutions to the inaccessible infrastructure of Bishkek, and for being morally and financially supportive of individuals who need the help. For example, one group member I spoke with at a rally explained to me how they lobbied for ramps between bus stops and roads instead of for public transport with wheelchair lifts, understanding that this solution was more pennywise, and therefore more realistic.  The group uses their brand to promote a positive image of disability, and constantly celebrates the achievements of its members on social media.

Bishkek is by no means an ideal city for disabled individuals to live in; however, conditions have improved rapidly over the past few years. The improvement in conditions, achieved with minimal government intervention, is a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of the local activist community. Activists have capitalised upon social media to connect with one another and audiences abroad to create networks of support and awareness for those in society who have been so often overlooked. However, government support will be needed to fix issues relating to sidewalks, public transport, and healthcare in the future.

[1] 1 “Tamerlane (1336 – 1405) – The Last Great Nomad Power.” 1997-2000. The Silk Road Foundation.http://www.silkroadfoundation.org/artl/timur.shtml

[2] Manaev, Georgy. 2022. “Why Were Disabled People Persecuted in the USSR?” Russia Beyond. https://www.rbth.com/history/334286-why-were-disabled-people-persecuted-ussr (November 30, 2022).

[3] “Manifest Intertextuality; A Professional Secretary; An Unprofessional Secretary.” 2005. In Everything

Was Forever, until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, s.l.: Princeton University Press.

[4]  Закон СССР от 11.12.1990 No1826-1 “Об основных началах социальной защищенности инвалидов в СССР”

[5] Fefelov, Valerie. 1986. “v SSSR Invalidov Net!” London: Overseas Publications Interchange. 

[6] The term “invalid” does not carry the same negative connotation in the Russian language as it does in the West. In fact, activists I spoke with often preferred this term as it does not mask reality like the government term, “persons living with limitations to health.”

[7] Katsui, Hisayo, Gulmira Kazakunova, and Mina C. Mojtahedi. 2020. “Changing the Paradigm of Disability from Stigma to Equity in University Social Work Education in Kyrgyzstan.” Public administration and development: a journal of the Royal Institute of Public Administration 

[8] Cherevyk, K.A. 2016. “Education for the Disabled in the Republic of Kyrgyzstan.” Russian Education & Society 58(12): 779–88. doi: 10.1080/10609393.2017.1353833.

[9] Suyarkulova, Mohira. 2020. “’Nobody is going to want her like this:’ Disability, Sexuality, and Un/Happiness in Kyrgyzstan.” Kohl: A Journal for Body and Gender Research 6 (2).

[10] A calculated move, the name of the political party uses the French cognate “barrier.” A close Russian equivalent to this word, “pregrada,” is more literal and is not encompassing of less tangible “barriers” such as societal perception of disability.