More children with disabilities in Armenia are able to fully enjoy their neighbourhood schools
By Emil Sahakyan
YEREVAN, 5 FEBRUARY 2013 — Walls in a resource room in Yerevan’s inclusive school No 129 are decorated with colourful drawings and handcrafts, portraying happy children and their families. School principal Ms. Tamara Petrosyan, showing us proudly their school’s small art gallery, points at a girl, who is sitting behind the desk in a wheel-chair, working over a new masterpiece. “This is our lovely Siranoushik, “- she says warmly, approaching the 12-year old girl, “she is the author of many of the works you see here, she is our artist.”
A decade ago one could hardly imagine seeing a child bound to a wheel-chair in a regular school in Armenia. Rather, most Armenians believe that a child like Siranoush should attend a special school or even worse stay at home without education.
Yet this is no longer the case. Since 2005 when the inclusive education concept was introduced, more than 1,700 children with disabilities have got an opportunity to attend regular schools. More, UNICEF and the Government of Armenia are now implementing a strategy that would put an end to discriminatory practice of special schools and would transform them either into inclusive schools or resource centres called to provide support to underprivileged families and their children, including children with disabilities. There has been tangible progress achieved to that end as the number of special schools has been halved in the country, while the number of inclusive schools has increased up to 100 in the past years.
While we are talking to the school principal, Siranoush asks her mother Mary, who is also in the classroom, about us and why we are there. When Mary explains that the aim of our visit is to talk to her, Siranoush puts away her work, straightens up her dress and invites us to talk to her.
In our short conversation Siranoush reveals all her dreams which, in fact, do not differ much from those of her peers and classmates, yet she has some specific ones. “I am good at drawing and playing piano, “ she says, “ but I have a dream. My most coveted dream is to be able to walk and to dance. I don’t feel any different in this school, I enjoy it to be together with other children, going out with them during breaks, having fun with them and participating in school events. I feel like them and even plan to have my own children, at least three, whom I will name Anna, Marianna and Mariam.”
Talking to us Siranoush’s mother Mary boasts her daughter’s achievements in the inclusive school that would have been impossible, had she been placed in a special school. “My daughter plays piano very well, she participated in many exhibitions and recently U.S. Ambassador to Armenia awarded her with a special certificate for drawings Siranoush made for a competition,” Mary says, emphasizing that parents who take care about children with disabilities should believe in abilities of their children and should strive to invest their time and effort to develop those abilities to the extent possible.
“I am a mother of two children who have disabilities, I am unemployed, although I have higher education, I do not get much financial support from the Government to take care about my daughter and my son, yet I have made my choice and that is to ensure that both of my children get as much education as possible, participate in various events and attend various classes as much as possible. I do not want my children who have disabilities to feel disabled as I believe that any child with disability, when supported and included, has a huge potential to become a full-fledged member of the society.”
Siranoush’s story is, however, still a dream for many other children with disabilities living in Armenia. According to a recent report “It’s About Inclusion” released by UNICEF in Armenia, there are 8,000 registered children with disabilities in Armenia of whom 18 per cent do not attend any type of school.
Around 65 per cent of children with disabilities are poor or live on 3 USD a day (general poverty line in Armenia is estimated at 97.1 USD per month per person), while 8 per cent live in extreme poverty or less than 2 USD a day (extreme poverty line in Armenia is estimated at 57.2 USD per month per person), according to the 2012 Social Snapshot and Poverty in Armenia Report published by the National Statistics Service of Armenia.
The risk for children with disabilities to be separated from family and placed in an institution such as orphanage or special boarding school is much higher than for other children. One out of every 6 children with disabilities or 16 per cent lives or studies in an orphanage or special boarding school. More, girls with disabilities are relatively more frequently taken to orphanages than boys and are relatively less frequently visited.
The prevailing attitudes and discrimination against children with disabilities in the Armenian society is another big challenge that needs to be addressed. “The barriers for inclusion of children with disabilities are imposed by adults and they are mostly related to how the society perceives children with disabilities and the role the society has allocated for these children. Unfortunately, too many, including parents of children with disabilities, still believe these children are unable to study in regular schools, unable to participate in events, unable to contribute to the community they belong to, UNICEF Representative in Armenia Henriette Ahrens says.
Indeed, according to the UNICEF Report, 51 per cent of parents of children with disabilities not attending school and living in rural areas and 36 per cent of parents of children with disabilities not attending school and living in Yerevan believe that their children are unable to study at school. UNICEF Report demonstrates that 12 per cent of children with disabilities do not have friends at all and 33% do not participate in any event organized in their communities.
“We have to mobilize the society to address the stereotypes existing with regards to children with disabilities. It is imperative to increase public understanding of the fact that a society, able to include children with disabilities, is a better society for everyone. Learning in inclusive kindergartens and schools is the passport to living in a society where every member can lead a dignified life,” UNICEF Representative in Armenia Henriette Ahrens emphasized.
In 2013 UNICEF in Armenia is planning to unfold a multi-year campaign to promote inclusion of children with disabilities and their right to education and family environment. In addition, two special schools in Armenia’s southern province of Syunik will be transformed to become day-care or resource centres, providing services and support to underprivileged families, including families of children with disabilities.