Paving accessible path to the future
How the initiative to create a Barrier-Free Environment in Pavlodar has spread across the country and is now changing people’s lives
Anastasia Rybalko, a 17-year-old resident of Pavlodar, has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy since birth. At the same time, her impairment does not prevent her from travelling around the city on her own, and she considers herself to be “mobile”. The Accessible Kazakhstan website plays a significant role here. Anastasia calls it her “Great Helper”: “I use it at least two or three times a week. I come across an unfamiliar place and immediately see if I can get there or not. The site displays accessibility of public facilities to people with low mobility and people with special needs in 40 cities of the republic. In 2021 it was the first Kazakhstan’s project that was included in the Global Public Digital Goods".
The long journey to global recognition started in 2015, when a team of Tandau Foundation initiated a project called Accessible Pavlodar. The idea was preceded by close communication between civic activists and young people who are participants of the regional Art Festival for people with disabilities.
“They began to trust us and tell us about the innermost things. That’s when I heard: “The city is inaccessible and the region too. I didn’t understand that. I didn’t have anyone in my family or friends who had disabilities,” recalls Alexandra Sharonova, an accessibility expert.
The incomprehension triggered questions to be answered through careful study and situation analysis.
“We have had an idea of why this is the way it is. We invoked ways to change it. And we designed a project,” says Alexandra.
That’s how the residents of Pavlodar got a map, where by clicking on a facility, they could find out whether it was accessible for people with disabilities or not. In 2016, the initiative embraced the entire Pavlodar Region, and in 2017, the Almaty Region joined the project. The combined efforts of the three NGOs provided the reason to transform Accessible Pavlodar into Accessible Kazakhstan.
Today, Accessible Kazakhstan is a Consortium of 15 Public Organizations across the country. There are specially trained coordinators in each area. Alexandra, with no hesitation, cites the benefits of such an extensive network: “If someone has any questions, he writes to the chat room and gets a reply immediately. An individual can enjoy support from all over the country”.
Besides, the Project Leaders seek to raise the level of non-governmental sector partners by engaging international trainers to share their best practices.
“Not only people contribute to the Project, but the Project also helps people to reach a new quality level of civil society,” feels Alexandra Sharonova.
Apart from coordinators, the Project involves about 500 volunteers (the number of registered users on the Accessible Kazakhstan website). Alexandra as the chief moderator of the Map reviews and verifies the photos that volunteers upload to the site daily.
“I added the facilities on my own. You can do it on the website. Alexandra Sergeevna showed me how to do it. It was very intriguing for me,” says Yerlan Kurmangazin, a resident of Pavlodar. Almost 20 years ago, a broken spine deprived him of the ability to move freely, and today the online map helps the man stay active.
“If I need to go somewhere, I just open my laptop, go to the website, see if there is access, read the description, review the pictures, and then I weigh up in my mind if I can go there alone. It’s very convenient,” says Yerlan.
In addition to people with special needs, the volunteer community comprises “a pretty large group of women with young children in baby strollers,” adds Alexandra. Kazakhstan’s mothers of young children regularly experience difficulties in accessing public facilities.
For example, Anara Turebayeva, a resident of Nur-Sultan and mother of three children, is dissatisfied with the accessibility of the capital’s river embankment: one day a steep ramp virtually resulted to an accident where her youngest son was about to became a party involved.
“I have already complained about this embankment in various occasions; unfortunately, only standard pro forma letters come from the city administration,” she says.
Furthermore, the appeal with a request “to create conditions for everyone” should be addressed to the business community, believes Anara.
She talks about her experience of family trips to cafes: “Sometimes there is a play space, but it is either downstairs in the basement, or on the second or third floor. It’s not safe!”.
Often, other difficulties lie in wait for parents inside the premises: “They think if they put a high chair in a cafe, they have provided accessibility. In reality - they didn't. In addition to the high chair, one needs to make a play space, install the sink low so that you can wash your hands and make sure that one can go to the toilet: make an overlay or a children’s toilet,” adds Alexandra.
Today, the Accessible Kazakhstan online map helps Anara to choose places for family recreation: “When we choose a café, you can go to the website, view photos and assess the description… The description may not always match my concept of comfort, but when there are photos, it’s very convenient.”
Many businessmen are already cooperating with the Accessible Kazakhstan Project by creating an accessible environment in their city. Nariman Shakabayev is one of them.
“I am proud that our café was marked on the Accessible Kazakhstan Map as inclusive and family-friendly. I would recommend this resource for other cafés and restaurants as an opportunity to contribute to the development of an accessible and safe environment for all children”, Nariman Shakabayev, owner of the Hani Café Chain, Nur-Sultan.
In Kazakhstan, expertise on creating accessible, safe and child-friendly infrastructure at public facilities is still missing. An online course developed with the support of UNICEF is destined to change the situation. The Accessible Kazakhstan Team aims to catch up, and has already added an appropriate category to the map - "Families with children under seven years of age". There are 400 facilities available for viewing so far, all of which have been assessed by volunteers in terms of the availability of a safe environment for children.
The service has undergone a major technical upgrade: “First, a completely new User Interface and Frontend, which allows you to operate in “Single Window Mode” (Editor’s note: provision of One Stop-Shop Services); Second, the proper display on all types of devices and screens (mobile, tablet, desktop); third, the introduction of new statistics on facilities accessibility that can be downloaded and analyzed,” says Dauren Salipov, General Director of the Accessible Kazakhstan Developer company.
Alexandra notes that the qualified interaction with programmers became possible largely thanks to a three-month acceleration program from Astana Hub in 2020. At the end of the training, the specialists of the International Technology Park began to provide the Social IT Project with advisory and organizational assistance: “They were our supervisors and mentors,” says Alexandra. According to her, the Astana Hub Team not only monitored the deadlines and helped to draft the terms of reference, as well as had an immediate role in drafting the request for the Digital Public Good status.
“We are extremely happy that the Accessible Kazakhstan startup project that is a participant in the 9th Stream of the Astana Hub Accelerator has been recognized as the first Digital Public Good among Central Asian countries and it is a breakthrough. Now, we are working diligently to popularize Digital Public Goods among the Astana Hub Community. There are topical webinars on standards and requirements of Digital Public Goods for start-ups and projects to support it,” says Zhanerke Yegeubayeva, Director of Astana Hub Corporate Innovation and Digital Competences Office.
A team of coders has posted the Source Code for the Accessible Kazakhstan Online Map in an open repository on GitHub. “The Project lies in the open access for deployment in any country with minimal effort. This makes it possible for this Project to scale to other countries and therefore improve the level and quality of people’ lives,” stresses Salipov. This is one of those good outcomes that incentivize Alexandra and her like-minded associates to keep on their journey.
“If you compare what we started working on the Pavlodar Accessible Project and what we’ve achieved now is heaven and earth!”, says Aleksandra.
Over the years of the Project, the attitude of authorities, businesses, activists and even builders who defend the right of Kazakhstanis to accessibility has improved.
Alexandra recalls a recent case at the Pavlodar College of Information Technology: “A builder told the owner and the owner came over to me. There were some remarks, and we planned how to make an accessible toilet right with the builder. Eventually, we made a decent toilet. Now five kids in wheelchairs study there.”
A simple example in its entirety reveals the main value of the Project: “The guys will acquire a profession and further will be employed. They won’t be living on disability benefits anymore, they’ll be earning, they’ll have a fairly well-off life. That’s awesome,” says the Accessibility Expert.
17-year-old Anastasia Rybalko is very pleased with the convenient online service too, although the urban environment is still not quite adapted to the girl’s needs: “Many things are inaccessible and there are many obstacles. There are no ramps, there are many curbs in the city, it’s difficult to walk up and down stairs. Even if there is a ramp in some buildings, there are many doorsteps inside the building.
At the same time, the girl can’t help but notice the positive changes: “I’m grateful to Accessible Kazakhstan, as Pavlodar has become more accessible and more understandable in terms of where I can go and where I can’t.”
The importance of such information for people with disabilities is priceless. Yerlan assures that all his associates with disabilities are activists, athletes and workers and all of them know about this online map. One man even talked about it himself, a 26-year-old Kuanysh.
“The guy is young, he has recently had an injury, he’ s just been disabled. I told him about this Map. He started going out, he’s even got a job now. He is into sports and athletics,” rejoices Yerlan, “Isn’t that good? He is going to grow in the future. I think, he will even have sports achievements”.