“I really want our society to be inclusive. I think we should start with culture because music and arts do not require interpretation. If we make culture inclusive and accessible, everything else will go by itself, God willing,” said Mirsaid Mukhotorov, a blind student of international law at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy. The Arts and Culture Development Foundation (ACDF) under the Ministry of Culture of Uzbekistan has recently hired him as a consultant on inclusive programmes thus setting up a good example on how cultural institutions should be inclusive and accessible for persons with disabilities in Uzbekistan.

Today, there are 102 museums, 39 theatres, 826 cultural centres, 4 universities, 25 colleges of culture, 322 schools of music and arts, 2 music lyceums, 207 parks and 3 zoos functioning under the Ministry of Culture. Introduction to culture is an effective means of socialisation and inclusion of children and adults with various forms of disabilities into society. Studying arts develops people spiritually and intellectually and brings aesthetic pleasure. However, can every citizen of Uzbekistan enjoy going to the theatre, museum, or a park? How many people with disabilities are hired by cultural institutions? Do they meet the 3% obligatory employment quota provided by the Law “On the Rights of Persons with Disabilities”?

Improving inclusivity and accessibility in the field of culture and arts is essential for many reasons. Firstly, it is the right of everyone, including people with disabilities, to participate in cultural life on an equal basis with others. This year this long-awaited change happened in Uzbekistan – the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with disabilities was finally ratified and came into effect on 28 July. Article 30 of the Convention guarantees equal rights of children and adults with disabilities to participate in cultural life, recreation, leisure, and sport. To provide this opportunity cultural materials, TV programmes, films, theatre, and other cultural activities should be in accessible formats for people with sensory impairments and cultural institutions should be physically accessible for visitors with reduced mobility.

Secondly, children and adults with disabilities possess unique traits including creativity, artistic and intellectual potential that could be used not only for their socialisation but for the enrichment of the Uzbek cultural endowment. Diversity and inclusion will inevitably make our culture rich with talents that we would otherwise leave behind. Inclusive cultural performances themselves could become a means of achieving social inclusion in Uzbekistan. A bright example is the Ilkhom Theatre of Mark Weil in Tashkent which initiated an “Inclusive Theatre” project by establishing a creative laboratory for children and young artists with disabilities.

Inclusive theatre and arts can also change negative stereotypes and prejudices surrounding children and adults with disabilities in Uzbekistan as the main problem is not in disability but in discriminatory societal attitudes and environmental barriers. Lack of accessibility at cultural institutions negatively affects not only citizens, but also guests arriving in Uzbekistan. According to the data of the State Committee for Tourism of Uzbekistan in 2019, a fifth of the tourists coming to the country were over 55 years old. For example, most of the Japanese tourists are people over the age of 60. According to the World Health Organization, 15% of the world’s population, or 1 billion people, have some form of disability while in the European Union alone, there are about 120 million people with disabilities.

ACDF has been at the forefront in promoting inclusion at cultural institutions of Uzbekistan since 2019 when it initiated the Samarkand Half Marathon – Uzbekistan’s first international charity run now held annually in Samarkand. The event had a great impact by drawing public attention to the problems of accessibility and inclusiveness of cultural and arts objects. The funds raised during the marathon were first used to produce theatrical performances accessible for blind and visually impaired people by introducing for the first time the audio descriptive commentary service. The second time the funds were directed to supporting children with autism and creating a children’s art studio.

However, there is still a lot to accomplish to make cultural life accessible for children and adults with disabilities. Uzbekistan can learn from the UK experience of making cultural institutions accessible. For instance, each cultural institution can make access guides for visitors with disabilities and reduced mobilities and put such information on their websites. In England almost every public organisation has access and mobility information on the availability of ramps, lifts, visual aids, induction loops for users of hearing aids and other types of reasonable accommodations made. Creating accessibility guides and involving people with disabilities at cultural institutions will make a positive impact and serve as a good example of inclusion for other public institutions in Uzbekistan to ensure they leave no talent behind.

by Dilmurad Yusupov