By Mendee Jargalsaikhan
Untold Stories of Persons with Disabilities in Mongolia
This is the name of our podcast and reflective blogspot. According to the National Statistics Office of Mongolia, 107.1 thousand of us are considered as persons with disabilities. A whole shelf-full of fine reports, studies, and statistics was produced. The government documents throw around catchy phrases and make promises to people with disabilities and also, officials give speeches at workshops, conferences, and designate special days recognizing people with disabilities. But most of these do not capture the true stories, dreams, hopes, challenges, and struggles they experience in their everyday life. In our society, an understanding of disability is hindered by stigmatization and stereotypes, which then affect these people’s life in various ways. This creates an artificial barrier in society. Therefore, we need to let people know about their stories that have been left untold. We are honored to have Mr. Battulga Ganbaatar as our first guest and the following is an attempt to capture his stories.
Guest of the UNTOLD podcast Battulga Ganbaatar, MIFIP Project Coordinator Sainbuyan Munkhbat; Photo: Batbold Yondonrenchin, FES Mongolia
Shock, Devastation, and Awakening
A car accident turned a young man’s life upside down. Shock, depression, and even an attempted suicide. He felt ashamed and was afraid to step out because he might run into his friends and acquaintances. One day, his parents learned about Mr. A. Khash – a host at the MGLRadio – who was launching a campaign to find and talk to people who were abandoned, depressed, and had lost hope. Mr. Khash visited the young man, Battulga, once or twice a week, and he brought other people along to share their stories and even celebrated the New Year together. After almost three years, Battulga realized that he must socialize. During these long and hard years, he learned the value of life, family, perseverance, and other things that would inspire him. However, he realized that if his parents had not known about Mr. Khash, or if Mr. Khash had not started his goodwill campaign, there would not have been any other specialist or organizations to help him go through this tough stage in his life. While thinking about the past, Battulga sighed heavily and said that he did not know if there was psychological counselling available at the hospitals.
Schools, Job Hunt, and NGO
Because of the devastating accident, he didn’t continue university from the third year. Now the first task he set for himself was to get a professional degree. In 2012, Battulga graduated in accounting from the Zasagt Khan Institute. Upon graduation, he tried to find a job. Battulga applied to several places, but the work environment was not right for him. He identified three aspects of the work environment that prevented people with disabilities from successfully adjusting to their work. The first one being infrastructure. The company that offered him a job was located on the third floor, yet the building did not have a lift, and was not wheelchair accessible, and furthermore, there was no toilet for people with special needs. The other problem is cultural. The people – managers and co-workers – should have an inclusive attitude and knowledge about people with disabilities, Battulga explains. It is easy to create several jobs for people with disabilities, and for wealthy companies, to construct a barrier-free infrastructure. The most important aspect is sustainability – an organizational culture that promotes a friendly working atmosphere for people with disabilities. So, he joined the Mongolian National Association of Wheelchair Users, where he met his spouse, and later, worked as a project manager in the Tugeemel Hugjil, a non-governmental organization that promotes the independent living for people with disabilities.
Public Transportation for the Public Movement
In 2014, not a single bus was equipped to serve wheelchair users in the capital city. Battulga joined his colleagues to create a social movement – “Public Transportation for the Public” – to facilitate the use of public transportation for people with disabilities. Members of this campaign, including the Tugeemel Hugjil (NGO), protested and clashed with the police until the city authorities listened to their demands. The city authorities agreed and quickly purchased 20 buses, which were equipped to transport passengers with wheelchairs. However, they only run along the city centre and drivers are very reluctant to take wheelchair passengers, according to Battulga. In order to load or unload the wheelchair, the bus needs to drive into the bus stop pocket and dock at the sidewalk. It would take extra effort for the bus driver to force away those cars stopping or even parked illegally at the bus stop, and then get back to the lane mostly jammed in Ulaanbaatar’s (UB) traffic. Simultaneously, the drivers are under time pressure to get paid. Battulga’s last experience of using this fully equipped bus was terrible – especially, the driver’s attitude. He was shouting at him and asked if he could stand up and pull himself into the bus quickly. That was the only time he used the bus.
Eye Opening Trips in Japan and United States
Before travelling abroad, Battulga accepted things as they were given and thought the life of a disabled person should be like this. But things are different in Japan and the United States. He was lucky to visit Japan through a trip funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency. He shared his two observations that touched him the most in Japan. First, him seeing a student with Down syndrome studying in the regular classroom. He was aided by a nurse and a special educator – who took notes for him and helped him to participate in classroom activities. Studying alongside each other, these young children experience the needs of their classmate with special needs. This will shape their attitude differently. The other was a business incubation centre for people with disabilities at the local district. This centre provided consulting and workspace for only those who wanted to be entrepreneurs for 45 days. In contrast to Japan, his experience in the United States was different. He interned at the Center for Independent Living in Washington, DC for 45 days as a participant in the Leaders Advancing Democracy (LEAD) program. On the first day, he was lost at one of the metro stations and realized that no one was coming to offer him assistance unless he asked for it. In Mongolia, people perceive a disabled person as vulnerable – and most of the time, offer their help. In contrast, the strict enforcement of disability laws and acts in the United States requires all facilities and infrastructure to be accessible; thus, protecting the human dignity of people with disabilities and ensuring that they can participate in society
Policies, Laws, and Regulations
Our discussions immediately led to policies, laws, and regulations to protect the rights of people with disabilities. Laws are declaratory, weakly enforced, and the people who make these policies do not understand the needs of people with disabilities, Battulga sighed. Mongolia joined the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009 and passed the ‘Law on the Rights of Disabled People’ in 2016. Since then, many regulatory changes have not passed. For instance, the 2016 law declares that the state will provide the master’s degree education for free, but his friend could not claim this entitlement. Officials at the government and university simply responded that the relevant regulation had not been approved. At the moment, the government officials are drafting the amendments to the ‘Law on Education’ to promote equal education. The sad fact is that these officials do not realize the need of inclusive education and use financial and bureaucratic constraints as an excuse to drop such proposals. Battulga stresses the importance of starting the inclusive education, rather than continuing the separate educational environment for children with disabilities. One point, which needs to get into minds of current Members of Parliament, is Battulga’s suggestion to enact an anti-discriminatory law against all types of discrimination against race, ethnicity, gender, disability, language, and culture. This law must be enforced strictly to create an equal, inclusive society.
Impact of Covid-19 on People with Disabilities
He mentioned a poignant tweet about people with disabilities during the pandemic – nothing has changed the lifestyle of the disabled person, especially those who spend days at home because of the cold weather and unfriendly infrastructure. Then, Battulga wonder if the current pandemic quarantine rules leave room for people with disabilities, or if there is a specific regulation for them. Yes, it is a vital concern – some must use wheelchairs, some need to have a caregiver, and others require specific medical facilities. Also, we do not know how people who need to visit regularly for giving medical care and medicine would be affected by the extreme lockdown. These are important concerns that must be carefully thought out and accommodated by the authorities and professionals.
Our guest’s insightful, candid discussion seems to lead to one major solution for changing the society’s attitude towards people with disabilities. He passionately argues that if we introduce and strictly enforce the anti-discriminatory law and other related regulations in the next 10 and 20 years, it would construct appropriate social standards and rights attitudes toward people with disabilities. He cannot remember any class or social studies textbook that provides knowledge about different types of disabilities and their specific needs. In secondary school, he never interacted with children with disabilities. Battulga firmly believes that if we provide this type of knowledge and experience to children when they are in kindergarten and schools, they will understand the people with disabilities. One of them will be a doctor, construction engineer, lawyer, and Member of Parliament. They will know the needs of their classmates. If the bus driver or an official who is working on the amendment of the ‘Education Law’ had such knowledge and experience, Battulga would have been telling us how he enjoys riding the bus, or how schools are becoming more inclusive than they have been during the socialist period. Finally, he said that barrier-free infrastructure is not only for people with disabilities, but it also has a universal design and is multifunctional. The sidewalk or washroom could be used by elderly, ones with canes and clutches, parents with infants, and all others.
Sainbuyan and I struggled to give a name to this invincible fighter, who also shares our unrealistic dream of going to Mars and wants to create a tourism policy which would promote Mongolia as the most inclusive tourism destination for people with disabilities after his study in Australia. He did not give up his fight for the Australian Awards Scholarship until he won the scholarship. Later, we learned that he is a pretty good singer, who surprised many at the 2013 Universe Best Songs.
The Untold podcast and blog post are made available by the generous support of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Mongolia. We would like to thank Yongmin Lee, who agreed to be our first proof-reader.