Close friends Amid and Bahlul both suffered injuries as young men that left them with permanent disabilities.
Bahlul was injured in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Amid was involved in a car accident.
Both have since experienced the many physical and social challenges of living with disabilities and getting about in wheelchairs in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan.
But this is not the most important thing they have in common. What the two men share above all else is an unshakeable determination to lead active and independent lives — as well as a passion for sharing their resolve and enthusiasm with other people with disabilities.
“We push against the limits every day!” says Amid, “In ourselves and in society — physical and psychological. We refuse to be excluded! We insist on being included.”
“That’s right!” says Bahlul, “We’re not going to let our situation stop us from staying fit and getting about on our own. That’s what our project’s all about — empowering people to live life to the full.”
Their ‘project’ is the no-profit organization they have jointly founded, ‘Handbike Azerbaijan’, which is transforming lives by helping people with disabilities to take up cycling.
The project began two years ago when Amid and Bahlul decided to build a bicycle for themselves from scratch.
“Staying fit can be really tough when you’re a wheelchair-user,” explains Amid.
“We both felt frustrated and in the end we decided to do something about it by building a bike that we could use even with our disabilities.”
The first bike they made was built with the help of YouTube videos and any materials they could find.
“It weighed 65 kilos and it was pretty uncomfortable!” Bahlul says, laughing, “But, of course, it had a symbolic meaning for us.”
They soon set about building a second bicycle — managing to make a lighter and more comfortable design, applying the lessons learned from the first experience.
To get their message to a wider audience — the message that cycling can be a healthy and empowering activity for people of all ages and all abilities — they bought two other bikes so they could take part in international cycling competitions.
“The cycling competition was an amazing experience!” says Amid. “So many people cheered us on! Our bike became famous in Baku!”
“We sent a message out that day,” says Bahlu, “that cycling is for people with disabilities too.”
They then launched their non-profit company with the aim of offering training people with disabilities in cycling. The next step in their plan is to start commercial production, buying ten more bicycles so they can train larger groups.
Handbike Azerbaijan may be small in scale, but its impacts are wide-ranging — promoting not only the physical and psychological health benefits of cycling but also raising public awareness of the needs and capacities of people with disabilities and the value of increasing their social inclusion.
According to the latest estimates, there are 620,000 persons with disabilities living in Azerbaijan, or 6% of the total population.
Azerbaijan ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in January 2009, becoming one of the first countries in the region to do so. However, people with disabilities continue to face difficulties and barriers that often remain invisible to the broader public: inaccessible infrastructure, stigma, lack of relevant assistive technology and services in almost all areas of life.
Amid and Bahlul’s project raises awareness of these challenges at the same time as seeking to share the joy of independence and greater self-confidence that comes with better health and mobility — and the sheer joy of cycling.
Promoting the social inclusion of people with disabilities is a top priority for both the Government of Azerbaijan and UNDP.
Last year, the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection and UNDP announced the start of a new self-employment programme for people with disabilities which is granting financial and technical support to up to 500 candidates to launch and run their own business.
UNDP is also working closely with the Ministry of Education of Azerbaijan on an EU-funded project promoting inclusive education through traditional arts to help increase access to vocational trainings for young women and men with disabilities.
Recently, as part of a National Inclusivity Campaign, UNDP helped organize the first ever inclusivity hackathon, bringing industry experts, academia and people with disabilities to work together on the development of tech and IT solutions for people with disabilities.
The newly founded Accelerator Lab, launched by UNDP, Germany and Qatar is already up and running — mapping and highlighting grassroot innovative solutions and initiatives such as Handbike Azerbaijan, which could potentially help create jobs, develop new skills and improve the quality of life of people with disabilities.
Over the next months, together with national and international partners, we will be looking into drawing on community and wider resources to promote and scale-up the most promising initiatives.
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