Gulnaz Zhuzbaeva is the Co-Founder of the Public Union,’ The Kyrgyz National Federation of the Blind.’ The organization teaches independent living skills for the visually challenged through rehabilitation training. She is building a new specially-abled community with a positive attitude towards the disability. Gulnaz has been engaged in educational, cultural, and social charity projects in the visually challenged community in the last nine years. Since 2016 Gulnaz has been an Executive Committee Member of the Asian Blind Union.
Gulnaz Zhuzbaeva grew up in Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan, with three brothers. Her mother worked in a school for 33 years while her father held various jobs, working at an auto-base and later in a school. Gulnaz says, “When I was a kid, my parents started noticing certain things about me. I played differently and I had difficulty finding my toys. Worried by this behaviour, they took me to the doctor when I was three years old. After that I visited a string of doctors, and was soon diagnosed with vision impairment.”
The doctors said that Gulnaz would be unable to attend an ordinary school. They suggested that her parents consider sending her to a school for visually impaired children in Bishkek, far away from where she resided.
However, Gulnaz was determined to lead a normal life, and her parents agreed to send her to a regular school. While in school, she says, “I did not want to seem different, I lived with and around sighted people, and like any other school-going kid, did not want to stand out. Determined to outshine my peers, I always read more than what was asked. I would read everything in advance with the help of my parents. This experience of determination and perseverance had a deep impact on me.”
She soon surpassed all their expectations and earned not one but two Bachelor degrees and a Master’s degree as well; however, this did not come easy.
Gulnaz encountered innumerable challenges; the most difficult one was the inaccessibility of her study material. She recalls, “There were times I wanted to give up; it seemed I was the only person with difficulty seeing because I never met any other visually impaired people. Often I wondered what other visually challenged people’s lives were like, were they similar to mine?”
Battling through her challenges, she received her Diploma from the Karakol Branch of the Moscow Institute of Entrepreneurship and Law in English and Literacy. She then went on to earn her Master’s Degree and soon got her first job as a teacher.
She says, “I loved the process of teaching. Parts of the job, however, were not accessible to me. In particular, I was unable to mark the paper copies of my students’ work. I had a really close friend, who helped me to do these tasks, allowing me to concentrate solely on teaching. Unfortunately my friend passed away, and I fell into a hopeless state of depression. I did not want to do anything, at all. But my family persuaded me to attend an education institution for people that are blind and visually impaired.”
While there, she learned the art of massage and even earned her Diploma as a certified masseuse. Although the school’s aim was to enter the job force as a skilled masseuse, she explained, “Whilst I enjoyed the anatomy classes that I took, I drew much more inspiration from my new relationships with other visually impaired people. I have always had the innate desire to help, and when I saw people having difficulties in everyday life, I realized that things needed to change. I decided, at that moment, that I wanted to travel abroad and find ways of helping other visually impaired people like myself.”
Moved by her epiphany, Gulnaz visited India; she attended a conference where she met many other visually impaired people doing wonderful things. From there, she travelled to Switzerland, which was merely the start of her adventure. She says, “For me, this was a significant moment as my deceased friend, and I had always dreamt about travelling. We decided to go to a place that was relatively small, this was Switzerland.”
After Switzerland, she was invited to the Louisiana Center for the Blind, where Gulnaz learned a lot about philosophy, methods, and strategies to empower and improve the lives of visually impaired people. The conference had such an impact on her that she decided to implement all her learnings through her visits to various countries in the world by founding the Kyrgyz Federation.
The Foundation has set up education facilities in Kyrgyzstan wherein visually impaired children could live together to learn how to accomplish tasks and empower them to become independent adults while supporting them in their journey.
Gulnaz says, “We want all our students to be a success story. Our most recent class that graduated from our school have all done well by either receiving employment opportunities or admission for their further studies or have started a family. And for me, that is real success.”
However, she adds, “We do have brilliant students such as one is an Olympian, having attended the Paralympic Games for Judo while several others have accomplished incredible feats in their career and the sports industry.”
However, due to the pandemic, they were forced to send their students back home. They adapted to online classes and made braille books (A system of writing and printing for visually impaired people, in which varied arrangements of raised dots represent letters and are identified by touch). They began distributing these books to foster access to information, worked on sports, and conducted online exercises to keep their students fit and healthy. They went one step ahead and also reviewed the political processes intending to meet with the commissioner to ensure their voting rights and access to information regarding electoral processes.
For her tremendous work, empowering the specially-abled community in Kyrgyzstan, she received the regional award from the President of their country in 2017 and was also included in the ‘BBC’s 100 Women Of 2020’ list.
In conclusion, she says, “Keep learning and keep doing new things. Believe in yourself above all. Sure, there are obstacles, and problems, I have experienced my fair share of them. But always remember that these are temporary. Move forward and trust that you will achieve success in the end.”