“This year’s been stressful for so many people but I’ve had Art School to keep me going the whole way through the pandemic,” says Nanakhanum Azimova. “And I’ve got something to look forward to when 2020 finally comes to an end too – my first display in an art exhibition!”
When Nanakhanum enrolled at a new Art School that opened in Baku in 2019 she was taking a leap of faith. Her experience of school as a child, as for many people with disabilities in Azerbaijan and around the world, had been marred by social exclusion and even stigma. She remembers vividly how the high-school she had wanted to attend in Baku refused to accept her:
“They told my parents I had to go to a special school – a boarding school too far away for us to see each other for weeks at a time. We looked at each other and we knew at once we couldn’t stand that idea! And so for better or for worse I ended up being home-schooled all those years.”
As in many developing countries, people with disabilities in Azerbaijan face many barriers to leading independent and fulfilling lives. These include not only physical barriers such as limited access to public spaces, transport and recreation facilities but also social prejudices that limit access to education and employment, negatively impacting the lives of some 600,000 people with disabilities and their families throughout the country.
As part of its longstanding commitment to helping the people and government of Azerbaijan overcome these barriers for people with disabilities, UNDP and UNFPA joined forces with the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection of the Population to launch a project entitled ‘Addressing the Rights and Well-Being of Women with Disabilities and Veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict’.
One outcome of this project aimed at changing perceptions and attitudes towards people with disabilities is Azerbaijan’s first-ever inclusive art school in Baku, offering free classes in drawing, knitting and woodcarving for 17 students with and without disabilities.
“I had some doubts about applying for this school at first,” she says, “but I told myself ‘Don’t be so fearful that you miss an opportunity! And it’s turned out one of the best decisions I ever made.”
Nanakhanum’s physical mobility has been severely restricted since she was three years old as the result of a brain operation. She has directly experienced the inequalities of opportunities for people with disabilities all of her life. But now more than ever – at the age of twenty-nine – she refuses to be excluded.
“Going to art school opened a whole new world to me – not just drawing but new friendships. I know what it means now to be accepted - to be treated as an equal by my tutors and peers.”
Elnara Aliyeva, one of the arts tutors at the school, says the single greatest reward of her job is seeing how the classes build up students’ confidence in so many different areas as they develop a sense of belonging:
“Nanakhanum found it very hard to draw when she first came because of her disabilities,” explains Elnara. “But hours of hard work and perseverance have paid off and she’s now dexterous with enough to do what she’s always wanted – to draw!”
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Art School effectively switched to online learning. Nanakhanum and her fellow-students have since had all necessary equipment and tools to facilitate their learning delivered to their homes and are now regularly attending online classes.
To keep people’s spirits up, the project is supporting the school to organise an exhibition of artworks and handicrafts to take place at the end of this year. For most of the students, this will be the first time they’ve had the public look at their arts – and a first opportunity to actually get some income for their work.
‘Addressing the Rights and Well-Being of Women with Disabilities and Veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict’ is a project funded by the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection of the Population, implemented by UNDP and UNFPA in Azerbaijan. It was launched at the initiative of the first Vice President of Azerbaijan, Mehriban Aliyeva.