Zahira Begalieva has long been promoting the rights of people with disabilities in Kazakhstan and helping them secure jobs through her ITeachMe Competence Development Center. Zahira, who herself lives with a serious musculoskeletal disease, knows firsthand how critical accessibility and inclusion can be.
“The life of a person with a disability comes with constant barriers. We sometimes don’t feel fully present or comfortable with ourselves. We cannot always go where we want to go, we cannot always work where we want to…because there are not always ramps or proper infrastructure,” Zahira said.
Zahira’s son Dauren, an IT student, first inspired her to launch innovative, online professional development courses for people with disabilities. “The Internet is here!” Dauren told his mother. “It’s a colossal platform with limitless possibilities.”
With a seemingly unlimited set of possibilities for the platform, connecting with the right audience was challenging. That’s why Zahira turned to the Institutional Development Program (IDP) from USAID’s Social Innovation in Central Asia (SICA) activity.
At the initial stage, SICA’s institutional development experts helped Zahira and her team revise ITeachMe’s mission to forge new partnerships and attract new donors.
“As soon as we changed our mission, positive changes happened. People from diverse backgrounds began to approach us for cooperation,” says Zahira.
Through ITeachMe, Zahira provides people with disabilities with professional development opportunities to become more competitive in the labor market and financially independent. The center focuses on Kazakhstani youth with disabilities, introducing them to the IT-sphere and helping them learn the skills of the future. After almost two years of USAID support, 87 percent of ITeachMe participants have been employed or have become entrepreneurs.
Through SICA, Zahira was able to exercise one of her most important values: self-education. The changemaker often tells ITeachMe participants: “You get 20 percent of your knowledge from us; the rest is through self-education.” Zahira enjoyed SICA’s emphasis on leadership and developing one’s strengths to help inspire others, allowing her to become a stronger leader for her staff and students.
Once she refined ITeachMe’s mission and outreach, SICA’s resources and platform offered Zahira a chance to share her organization’s mission across Kazakhstan, reaching over 700 people with disabilities. One participant, Sapak Ulpan, says that she is proud she has found her own niche and opened her own business with skills learned in ITeachMe.
“In 2020, I learned about the fund via Telegram. I felt that this was such a unique chance that I didn’t want to waste. Upon enrollment to the program, I was trained and then was offered a job. Today, I have my own printing studio in my native village, and I’m so happy,” Sapak said.
“Our courses are built so that a person receives knowledge about professional development overall, and then can further specialize and learn independently. We also strive for inclusivity in all realms of learning. For example, we are one of the few organizations in Kazakhstan who accompany our courses with sign language interpretation,” Zahira affirms.
Today, ITeachMe courses allow people with disabilities to acquire knowledge in 12 relevant areas such as sketching, mobilography, which is a type of photographic art on electronic devices, and other science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. This includes the use of basic motion programming in Scratch, an online programming language that’s used to create your own interactive stories, games, and animations. The courses include three months of short-term training and a five-day skill camp. After undergoing training, participants present a term paper, where potential employers come to hear their presentations and ultimately invite leading candidates to work with them.
Zahira credits her project’s transformation to SICA’s focus on bringing established and new civil society organizations together to work on common development goals like financial viability and responsiveness to beneficiaries. The ITeachMe Competence Development Center has now become more than just a very helpful professional development program for people with disabilities. It has also created a sense of community and serves as an advocacy platform.
SICA’s experts encouraged ITeachMe to expand beyond professional development and contribute to the development of inclusive laws in Kazakhstan. In recent legislative initiatives, ITeachMe has advocated for the inclusion of a clause that supported “distance learning for persons with disabilities.” This particular piece of legislation could make education and professional development opportunities more accessible to all, including people with mobility challenges or compromised immune systems.
With more than a thousand people from all over Kazakhstan interested in ITeachMe courses, Zahira can now focus on her next big plans. In the coming year, she plans to update ITeachMe’s foundation strategy, open a branch in Atyrau, and offer ongoing support to the center’s graduates.
“We work to show a positive model of people with disabilities and create equal opportunities for all,” Zahira concluded. “We live in a world where it should be possible to realize every person’s potential.” With her passion, knowledge and clear organizational development goals, Zahira is making that world a reality.