New research on civil society, welfare and the rights of persons with disabilities in the former Soviet Union

Mae'r cynnwys hwn ar gael yn Saesneg yn unig.

New research by WISERD Co-Director, Professor Paul Chaney, analyses civil society organisations’ perspectives on the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in nine former Soviet republics, latterly renamed the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Namely, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russian Federation, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Over the past decade, the majority of these countries have finally ratified the CRPD, offering new hope for the region’s 15.4 million persons with a disability. A total of 164 countries have now signed the Convention. An ambitious treaty, in the words of the UN it aims to ensure PWD have rights and are “capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent as well as being active members of society”.

This new study from WISERD analyses hundreds of civil society organisations’ views on the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.


What did we know about disability in the CIS?

The situation facing persons with disabilities in the CIS today is shaped by the legacy of the former USSR.

It ensured that young people with developmental disabilities were routinely locked up in closed institutions. Similar abuses have been documented in Western “welfare” practices of the period. Across the CIS, recent years have seen the emergence of a mixed economy of welfare. The transition to capitalism and marketization has removed some of the state support for persons with disabilities and meant that the living standard of many people with disabilities has deteriorated.


Why explore civil society perspectives on the rights of persons with disabilities in the former Soviet Union?

Four main reasons underpin the decision to explore civil society views on the implementation of the CRPD:

  • It is an area that has largely escaped scholarly attention.
  • It complements “official accounts” often written by bureaucrats using secondary data. In social theory terms, this study’s use of first-hand data has the potential to offer greater insight based on the situated knowledge of civil society organisations – i.e. those run by and for persons with disabilities. In other words, the views and experiences of people who have everyday knowledge of the situation facing persons with disabilities.
  • The participation of civil society is written into the CRPD. The Preamble requires government to: ‘promote their participation in the civil, political, economic, social and cultural spheres with equal opportunities’. Article 33 of the Convention (‘National implementation and monitoring’) requires a participatory approach; one that is not solely driven by state bureaucracies but also involves civil society organisations.
  • Civil society organisations’ reports are also a required part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) – the five yearly monitoring programme of human rights compliance for all counties overseen by the United Nations.



The study reveals civil society organisations’ critical discourse calling for the CIS to move away from the outdated Medical Model and embrace the Social Model of Disability. The Medical Model regards the disabled person as the problem. Typically, attention centres on impairment and there is a discourse of cures, normalization and science. In contrast, the CRPD is predicated on the Social Model of Disability. This explains disability as a function of the inequalities and discrimination that prevent persons with disability taking part in the normal life of society.

As noted, the new research examined the full breadth of public policy areas. Here we summarise the findings on employment and social care. In the case of employment, civil society discourse repeatedly criticises the endurance of the medical model approach. For example, one civil society organisation in Kazakhstan observed that, ‘the majority of people with a mental disability are unemployed and there are no programs to provide coaching and support for them to work in mainstream employment’.

Key failings in labour market policies included weak law enforcement and a lack of monitoring and data about employment of persons with disabilities. This criticism is exemplified by the fact that while there was a quota for the employment of people with disabilities, it was not filled. In the case of Azerbaijan, outdated discriminatory laws were a problem.

In terms of social care, the endurance of the outdated medical model from the Soviet era is highlighted repeatedly. For example, in Kyrgyzstan one civil society organisation complained that ‘children are placed into institutions of residential care based on the conclusion of [the] psychological–medical–educational commission…. [There is an] urgent need to develop and adopt standards for the provision of social services alternative to residential institutions for children with disabilities’.

Thus, this new study from WISERD presents new data on territorial rights across the CIS. It is true that, because many member countries have only recently ratified the Convention, it is early to expect rapid progress. However, the rights violations revealed in the new analysis constitute real challenges owing to their systemic nature. Crucially, they relate to the public policy-making process itself. Notwithstanding governments’ espousal of civil society organisations’ participation in policy-making, current CRPD implementation often falls short of full and effective engagement with civil society.


Why do these findings matter?


  • Fundamentally, as the 21st century moves into its third decade, they attest to the suffering and oppression faced by millions of persons with a disability.
  • Civil society views reveal that to blame former Soviet practices as causing the oppression of today’s persons with a disability is too easy and simplistic. Since 1991, lack of political will, prejudice and the rise of neo-liberalism and the capitalist system are equally culpable.
  • They underline the need for further transformation of governance practices across the CIS. This means a strengthening of the capacity of civil society organisations representing persons with disabilities and the end to legal restrictions and government repression of civil society.
  • This study also signals the need for stronger international monitoring and enforcement of CRPD rights, accompanied by an improvement in equalities data-gathering.

Overall, this new study tells us that an essential factor determining the rate of future progress in implementing the CRPD is the extent to which CIS governments break with past practices and embrace engagement with civil society.


Read the research findings in full:

Europe Asia Studies front coverDate of Publication: 12 March, 2021

Chaney, P. (2021) Civil Society, Rights and Welfare: Exploring the Implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the [Post-Soviet] Commonwealth of Independent States, Europe Asia Studies, Routledge T & F, Online ISSN: 1465-3427.

© CC-BY licence – Open Access     

This research was undertaken as part of: Trust, human rights and civil society within mixed economies of welfare | WISERD in WISERD’s ESRC Civil Society Research Programme led by Professor Ian Rees Jones.