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Children still grow up separated from their families in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
In Uzbekistan, young people living with disabilities and theatre professionals help achieve social inclusion
The rehearsal room is buzzing with enthusiasm. One can hear the chuckles and crackles of children and young people with disabilities. They gesture to each other. They have signs to say that they are happy to be back. They enjoy their time with the professional theater actors.
“Ilkhom” is a progressive theatre group in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, which experiments with different art forms and ways of expression. In 2018, Ilkhom approached UNICEF with an idea of an inclusive theatre lab – to work with a mix of children and young people living with disabilities, along with theatre professionals.
The idea was unique, and understandably, there was significant anxiety amongst most participants. No one had done this before. Not the actors, not the theatre company, and not the young people.
Fourteen children and young people living with various disabilities joined the Ilkhom theatre crew. These included children with visual, cognitive and mobility challenges, and those with psycho-social disabilities. None of them was sure how it would be to work with each other in the entire group.
Some said that when they first met, they cried.
But a journey began.
With their bare-feet on the theatre’s wooden floor, the young people and actors work together, connecting with each other. There are a few wheelchairs, and everyone now has what they need – the right attitude and belief in themselves.
In Uzbekistan, social prejudices and a medical approach to addressing disabilities are still widespread. Most children with disabilities are sent to large-scale institutions which cause considerable harm to a child’s well-being and development. Children with disabilities who are not in institutions seldom attend school.
Many young people with disabilities in Uzbekistan live with depression and some have committed suicide.
“This theater has opened me to dreams that let me fly,” says a 21-year old woman with visual impairment.
“We are lucky we found this stage,” says a 25-year old participant.
“Often, we would believe that a workshop like this would benefit children and youth with disabilities. One of the most remarkable lessons of this workshop is what we actors have learned. We found new ways to use our own bodies. Watching these children with special abilities perform – it is as if we have created our own new planet. We would have never found it in our acting schools,” says Boris Gafurov, Artistic Director of the Ilkhom Theater.
“We return home from rehearsals – tired, but with joy and pride. Every day, we wait for Mondays, when we will go to rehearsals again. We have made so many friends there. Our bonds are so strong. Now, we believe that our life is worth something more. Our voices matter. We matter,” says a young adolescent with disability.
Someone watching the rehearsals asks – “when can we see your performance?” Boris Gafurov replies, “It is not the performance that matters. It is this process. For us, this is all that matters.”The Government of Uzbekistan signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009, but has yet to ratify the Convention.