Trip to Azerbaijan for Disability Rights Reveals Culture Gap

Article excerpt

When children living in an orphanage grabbed at her hands and begged to be returned to their parents, Meaghan Starkloff realized just how different the culture is in Azerbaijan.

Meaghan journeyed this summer to the small country on the Caspian Sea as an ambassador for disability rights. She found that in a country still struggling with its own independence, independence for the disabled is still a dream.

The trip was sponsored by Mobility International, a student exchange program. Six American students and two leaders traveled to the former Soviet republic for a month to see how the disabled live and to share ideas with their hosts for promoting independence.

The students stayed with families in the capital city of Baku and visited orphanages, nursing homes for the disabled and disability-rights organizations almost daily.

For Meaghan, 15, a sophomore at Notre Dame High School, promoting the rights of the disabled is a family goal. Her parents, Colleen and Max Starkloff, are well-known for their disability-rights work. Max Starkloff, who is disabled, is president of Paraquad, an organization that helps people with disabilities to maintain independent lifestyles. Meaghan has spoken on disability rights at conferences in Japan and Chicago.

Coming from this background, she was dismayed by the treatment of disabled people in the former Soviet republic.

Poverty is rampant in Azerbaijan, which declared its independence when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Very few Azerbaijanis own their own homes, Meaghan says. People live in apartments that are cheerfully decorated and spotlessly clean inside but are old and crumbling outside.

Although the group found the hosts to be friendly and generous, the threat of violence on the streets forced the students to travel with bodyguards. The peace between the Muslim Azerbaijani and the Christian Armenian populations in the Karabakh region is uneasy.

Disabled people often bear the brunt of these social problems, Meaghan says. Azerbaijanis with disabilities, whether physical or mental, slight or profound, are segregated from the rest of society to live in institutions, she says.

Children born blind or deaf are immediately taken from their families and housed in orphanages specifically for disabled children. These practices are accepted by most Azerbaijanis, Meaghan said.

"When a child is born with a disability, it's automatically taken away from its parents and put in an orphanage," she said. "In this country we'd be saying, `Hey, wait a minute here,' but over there, it's a rule."

Some of the most heart-rending moments of the trip occurred while visiting orphanages. Some children's homes are filled with children whose parents have been killed in the fighting in Karabakh. …