For far too long, people with disabilities and their families had to endure a sealed fate—to suffer a life of alienation and rejection, subjected to the shunning and shaming common in tight-knit traditional communities with rigid definitions of what is accepted in human behavior and development.
Until recently, Armenia fit such a description. It was an unwelcome place that denied many the chance to participate in society and perform to potential. Confined to a world of isolation and stagnation, not only was the person in question the target of public contempt but also their family members were robbed of their dignity and pride—especially young siblings forced to carry family secrets they themselves could not quite understand. Stories of households ripped apart by blame, depression, despair and destructive coping mechanisms painted a picture of stark choices; either to struggle, financially and emotionally, caring for a loved one over a lifetime, or to send an innocent being to an orphanage or state-run institution, never to return to society again.
Lifting the Cloud of Stigma and Secrecy
Today, Armenia is well on its way up the learning curve about people with disabilities. Initiatives on the state and non-governmental level are finally helping to bring this segment of society out of the shadows, integrating them in both schools and the workplace and, in doing so, redefine what the general population looks like.
For Armenia’s Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Zaruhi Batoyan, integrating people with disabilities into the labor market is a key goal of the State Employment Agency. “The difficulties for those with disabilities in the work environment are due to a number of objective and subjective factors. On the logistical side, there is the inaccessibility of transport and accommodations in workplaces and other public venues, as well as skill deficits resulting from a lack of education. Then there are the psycho-social difficulties—the stereotyping and absence of a culture of social responsibility among employers.”
Work in Progress
To expand job opportunities for people with disabilities, Batoyan describes two government initiatives; one provides financial compensation to employers who hire workers otherwise uncompetitive in the job market; the other offers incentives to businesses that adapt their workplaces to accommodate employees with disabilities.
Recently, Armenia’s President Armen Sarkissian announced the launch of an employment program called Homeland Defender. The government calls upon state agencies to hire workers who have sustained permanent injuries while on military duty and are now counted as persons with disabilities. Two such indiv-iduals have been hired to work in the president’s administration.
Work makes it easier to live a more normal lifestyle. It has a psychological factor as well, because you feel useful. But society often views those with disabilities differently. That means the public also needs to be prepared to accept us as equals.”
At the same time, Armenia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations, which has a longer record for hiring people with disabilities, boasts an inspiring case in point—24-year-old Arkadi Andreasyan, who was wounded in a landmine explosion, and lost his leg. For the last year and a half, he has been working in the ministry specializing in unmanned aerial vehicles, used to detect fires and run search and rescue missions. Arkadi sees this as a positive step on the path to a healthy society. “Work makes it easier to live a more participatory lifestyle. It has a psychological factor as well, because you feel useful. But society often views those with disabilities differently. That means the public also needs to be prepared to accept us as equals.” Arkadi also lives an active life as a member of a wheelchair basketball team, serving as a role model to others who are physically challenged.
Pride and Performance
Fortunately, there are sources of support not only in Yerevan but also in the regions of Armenia. A few years ago, the Emily Aregak Center opened in Gyumri to help integrate children with disabilities and their families into society. The center provides services to 70 children (ages 2-18) with the goal of developing their performance, social and life skills to help prepare them for independent living. The children are provided with developmental services including special education, physical therapy, art therapy, as well as speech, music and psychological programs.
The center also considers alternatives for those who reach the age limit, who would otherwise be sent to an institutional facility. This prompted the groundbreaking idea of opening an inclusive bakery-café Aregak in Gyumri. Financed by the European Union, the Austrian Development Cooperation, and Caritas Austria, the project is designed to prepare those with disabilities to enter the labor market. “Our goal is to teach young people with disabilities how to work, and learn the skills they need to work elsewhere. Today the café employs eight people with disabilities and four parents of such persons.” Café manager Diana notes that tourists from Yerevan or abroad are typical patrons, adding that there are even days when the café is at full capacity.
Among the regular visitors to the café is Armenia’s president Armen Sarkissian, who always finds time to engage with his young friends who are delighted to serve him pastries and tea which they prepared on their own. The president has long been a champion of children and youth with special needs, which motivated him to found Yerevan My Love. A non-profit organization, its mission serves a dual purpose; revitalizing the rich architectural heritage of Yerevan and then using these restored spaces to support and serve children with disabilities.
Hovhannes Margaryan, a 26-year-old waiter with Down Syndrome, is also among the friends of the president. His mother Satik beams with pride as she describes how her son shows everyone the photo of him and the president and recounts their interactions. “My son has been working in a café for about a year. Due to this job, he is more socially outgoing and is learning how to interact with the public. It’s a very good team here. They know how to work with the staff members with special needs.” Hovhannes is not only able to travel to and from the café on his own but also, on his days off, he attends culinary classes at the college, the equivalent of a vocational trade school. He also receives wages, which help cover some of the expenses of his family.
Research shows that children with autism who receive appropriate education and support at key developmental stages are more likely to gain essential social skills and react better in society. And while autism cannot be cured, most affected teens and adults present less severe behaviors as they mature.
This understanding paved the way for the Autism National Foundation in Armenia to open its doors to the My Way Socio-Rehabilitation Day Care Center for Children and Teenagers with Autism. Participants, ages one to 30, may attend free of charge. The building was provided by the Municipality of Yerevan, and, with the support of state, local and foreign philanthropists, including AGBU, it was able to renovate the second facility and open its doors to students in the fall of 2019. Program manager Suzana Petrosyan points out that more than 500 programs have been initiated to help mainstream the children. “We always promote social acceptance of children who are different, but we must also teach the children how to behave in society. So we implemented many programs that teach social skills so they could effectively express themselves and engage in social life.” Some of the center’s projects are in association with the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies and the National Gallery of Armenia, among others. There are also classes for adolescents, who are taught to make candles, paper, soaps, postcards, and toys from secondary raw materials.
Petrosyan also mentioned cases of Armenian families from abroad with an autistic child who have returned to the center so their child may attend. “People with disabilities are the best informers about themselves. The more they take part in general society, the more the public will learn to view them as positive assets in the community. One of the missions of the center is spreading awareness and knowledge about autism.”
A Lifetime of Care
As a Peace Corps volunteer in Armenia in the early 2000’s, Natalie Bryant-Rizzieri was assigned to the village of Kapan where she worked at an orphanage for individuals with special needs. She quickly learned that once the orphans turned 18 they would have to leave the orphanage for a psychiatric institution, regardless of their needs and abilities. Natalie and Bridget Brown, another Peace Corps volunteer, were determined to change this. As a result, Friends of Warm Hearth Foundation was formed in the U.S. and its counterpart, the Jermik Ankyun Foundation, was established in Armenia. In 2006, after raising the funds to purchase a house in the outskirts of Yerevan, the first cohort of eight residents was welcomed to what is informally referred to as a “forever” home. Both male and female, the group came with various conditions, including schizophrenia, psychotic depression, pervasive developmental disability, deafness, cerebral palsy, and selective mutism. Six years later, a few graduated from Yerevan State Humanitarian College as specialists in carpet weaving and, through self-advocacy, one was able to secure a seasonal job with a local non-profit teaching traditional carpet weaving to female villagers.
But Byrant-Rizzieri cautions, “One thing that we are currently facing is how our support needs to change as our residents age. Another is helping members engage more in their communities. The ‘right to fail’ is a concept that is difficult for caregivers to accept, especially when their love for a resident is so strong. But we are really focusing on this human right and look forward to seeing how our residents change and transform as we develop new strategies for success.” She adds, “We want to continue to develop ways in which persons with special needs can give back to society. They have gifts and beauty to offer the world.”
Reporting by A. Kasyan and Tamar Hovesepian. Banner photo courtesy of Aregak Bakery and Café