As I walked toward the glass door of the UN Building, a slim young man quickened his step and joined me. We shook hands. I noticed his hand was missing fingers. His handshake, nevertheless, was warm and self-assured.
I was on my way to cover a career fair for News Central Asia. A career fair geared towards people with disabilities, the first of its kind here in Turkmenistan.
When I entered the spacious lobby, I was humbled to see the job seeking crowd; their preparation and determination to be useful and productive members to their communities was inspiring. People with disabilities deserve a fair chance, but due to stigmatizing attitudes from society, we often tend to offer our plain sympathies instead of resources.
There are more than 10,000 people with disabilities living in Turkmenistan. Yet the playing field for people with and without disabilities is far from being level. Challenges from education and employment are more than commonplace; most employers and educational institutions may lack even the basic ramps to accommodate a person in a wheelchair. This is one of the reasons why only a low number of persons with disabilities is employed or attends universities. For many, the prospect of receiving a high level education or employment seems like an unachievable dream. There is a widespread lack of understanding amongst many societies that most people with disabilities can overcome social stigma and function effectively at work, school and social life when provided with adequate support.
At the career fair, I had a chance to chat with Chary, who runs fitness clubs and gym for the disabled in Ashgabat and the Ahal provinces. I also had the pleasure of meeting Allamurat, who used to be a cook but is now looking to make a fresh start as a graphic designer with his Corel Draw Certificate. They were two of the many people I met at the fair whose stories inspired me to re-examine the blessings I often take for granted.
That day, I also got to know many individuals and organizations who worked hard to create enabling environments and generate opportunities for people with disabilities. Yenme, an NGO that provides social support to people with disabilities, orphans and socially vulnerable groups, was one of them. Yenme works to extend health services to those out of reach to build an inclusive society. Seeing their work renewed my faith in our society.
The event brought together 10 prospective employers for candidates to apply; four of which were Turkmen, another four were international and the remaining two were public associations. The private sector has the power and ability to solve the challenges facing our communities, often at a quicker and more effective pace. It was great to witness the private sector of Turkmenistan showing readiness to reach out and help those who have been left behind in areas of economic growth and development.
The event took place at the UN House in Ashgabat and was organized with the help of the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection in conjunction with the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of Turkmenistan. Spearheaded by UNDP in Turkmenistan, and with active support from the embassies of China, UK, US, France, Korea, and Germany, and the governments of New Zealand and Finland, it helped 100 participants network with people facing similar struggles as well as potential employers.
It may sound like a small step to foreigners, but I believe this career fair was a giant leap in the right direction for Turkmenistan. I see the determination of the organizers to take this journey forward. I can only hope that as time passes, and employers see what people with disabilities have to offer, awareness will spread, and more employers will open their doors to them. Indeed, it is the only way our country will progress.