By LUCY THOMPSON
Historically, people with disabilities in Mongolia have had very little assistance. It has only been within the last 15 years that policies have been introduced and plans made to provide and improve service. But even with this increasing momentum has the country actually seen much change?
The Soviet era “invisibility” of people with disabilities finally disappeared in the early 2000s, but the attitude it left behind has continued to affect the way Mongolians approach disability.
The refusal to acknowledge social problems such as poverty, unemployment, and the vulnerability of people with disabilities resulted in a nation lacking both the social and economic infrastructure to support these people, and an awareness of how severe the problem was. Since then, of course, the government has implemented policies and support networks, but these developments are nascent and also operational mainly in the capital. In rural areas, there is still considerable stigma regarding disability. In particular, families will still sometimes conceal the presence of a person with disabilities due to outdated ideas about disability as a form of punishment or retribution. Most certainly, material aid as well as education on the subject is needed.
This is not to say there is no one there to help; social welfare officers are operational in each province, as well as Non-Governmental Organisations such as the Association of Parents with Disabled Children – and recently a development center for children opened in Bayanzurkh District, Khovsgol Province. However, the charities and government groups lack comprehensive data on the people they are trying to help, meaning they cannot provide aid as efficiently or effectively.
Questions specific to disabilities did not appear on the census until 2010. Not all disabled unemployed people are registered with the Labour Regulation Office. As mentioned above, often people with disabilities are shamed into concealing it because of social misconceptions. And- perhaps the biggest problem is that an official classification system for disabilities is completely lacking. How can the government properly support people when they don’t know how many need help and what sort of help they need?
In contrast, in Uaanbaatar, the issues faced by people with disabilities are more to do with inadequate financial support and not having physical access to buildings and public places. It is as simple as having no ramp at an entrance or easy-access bathroom within, and a welfare allowance which does not cover medical bills let alone living costs.
This paints a dire picture – and the implication is that this vulnerable group in society is not being supported at all.
However, there are in fact numerous laws in play to ensure the protection of people with disabilities. They are guaranteed the right to material and financial assistance; they have further support set out in the Social Security Law for People with Disabilities; and Mongolia has ratified the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Besides this, there are workplace quotas to prevent discrimination: three percent of all jobs in a business of over 50 employees must go to people with a disability – that equates to two in every 50.
Even so, as good as this seems it does not translate to reality. Despite financial aid, the State Social Welfare Office estimates that roughly 80 percent of people with disabilities are living below the poverty line, and pointedly, less than 20 percent have a job even though employment quotas have been established. Many companies prefer to opt out of this and pay a fine to the Social Welfare Fund rather than going to the trouble of making the workplace accessible for people with disabilities, a point which demonstrates that Mongolia’s government simply doesn’t have the mechanisms to implement its policies. It also underlines a worrying trend in dismissing the visibility of people who have disabilities and the importance of that visibility. In this society, the promotion of inclusivity and acceptance regarding disability is noticeably absent, and that shows in the high percentage of the unemployed and uneducated.
The result is that in theory, the position of people with disabilities is improving, but in practical terms this improvement is not coming fast enough. They still do not have the same access to life on a day-to-day basis as the rest of the population.
While further legal developments are currently underway, it will be a long time before any result is apparent. Following the establishment of the Department for Persons with Disabilities in the Ministry of Population Development and Social Protection in 2012, existing laws and regulations surrounding disability are being reformed while new initiatives are advancing approaches to the support of people with disabilities. Recognizing the importance of vocational training and opportunities for self-employment for the housebound disabled is itself a step forward, but whether these policies will bring about effective change – and if so, how soon – remains to be seen.
Furthermore, part of the unemployment rate among those with disabilities can be attributed to the very low level of education within that group, and here again social stigma, as well as sheer practicality, is an influencing factor. Over 50 percent have had no access to education, and of those that do most reach only primary school. Something so basic as having no printed material in Braille can drastically reduce a young person with disabilities’ chance of getting an education. But when such problems are not brought to light, no-one knows what they are they and they remain unaddressed.
Another argument is that, when only 15 to 20 percent of children with disabilities attend regular schools and the remainder either are not in education or go to special needs schools, an attitude of segregation is already being encouraged at a very young age. Of course, in many cases it is impractical for children with a disability to attend regular school, and one can assume that the small percentage that does go to special needs schools gain enormous benefit from the expert help there.
In fact, more such expert help would be a great improvement, and help counter problems such as the misdiagnosis which many children face, particularly in rural areas. Medical assessments are made by a combination of local doctors, government officers, and members of the community. And with no classification system, incorrect conclusions are reached and the children are not provided with the care they need.
It is clear to see that many of the problems faced by people with disabilities stem from Mongolia’s infrastructure falling short in many areas. With no means of enforcing quotas and building regulations, establishing a proper assessment system, or collecting comprehensive data, the government is unable to provide the quality of life it promises.
To me, the starting point seems to be providing disabled people with practical access to public locations, transport, and buildings. From this they will gain increased visibility which will develop society’s awareness of disability, but crucially, they will have the means to get an education or have a job.
Frustratingly, a certain prerequisite of this is the development of urban planning to a point where building construction can be appropriately regulated and policies like the workplace quota properly implemented. Real change, then, will be slow. Nonetheless, given that legislative steps have been made more recently, and events like last December’s national conference for people with disabilities are raising the profile of this important area, perhaps Mongolia’s attitude towards disability and people with disabilities will be given a kick start soon.