Fostering social inclusion of children with disabilities
UNICEF brings together 35 organizations to empower effective advocacy for children with disabilities
Gayane Melkonyan and her 11-year-old son David have traveled to Dilijan to attend the two-day session on social inclusion of children with disabilities organised by UNICEF in partnership with Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs of RA. The two-day session aimed at strengthening institutions dealing with the rights of children with disabilities brought together 35 organizations, including active individuals.
Gayane works at the National Institute of Education, where she focuses on inclusive education. However, after the birth of her son, these issues became of personal interest to her as a parent, not just as a specialist. According to Gayane, parents of children with special educational needs must be well informed about the upcoming changes and relevant legislative framework. She is participating in the course to better understand the law on functional assessment, as her son would benefit from it.
"The functional assessment will help me and David understand his needs better, which is why I am willing to participate in this session to gain a more accurate understanding of the processes. Initially, I held a negative perception of functional assessment, but after attending this course, I have come to realize that each child is assessed meticulously with an individualized approach. I now have a more relaxed perspective. My objective in participating in this course was to learn about the extent of functional limitations that can affect my child, the issues we may encounter, and the challenges that the functional assessment process will address,"
The session for organizations advocating for the rights of children with disabilities covers a range of topics, including functional assessment. This program is one phase of UNICEF's ongoing efforts to support the government's initiatives and advance the social inclusion of children with disabilities in Armenia.
In December 2022, UNICEF partnered with the "Inclusion Armenia" NGO to conduct a comprehensive mapping exercise of all organizations working for children with disabilities in Armenia, including those established by parents of children with disabilities and those representing underrepresented groups, such as children with albinism, achondroplasia, intellectual and developmental disabilities, and psychosocial disabilities. The mapping was followed by a needs assessment to understand the needs and capacity requirements of these organizations better.
According to Hasmik Arakelyan, UNICEF's Education Program Officer, the goal is to contribute to the establishment of an umbrella organization that advocates for the protection and advancement of the rights of children with disabilities.
. "This organization will serve as a platform at the local, regional, and national levels, facilitating the discussion of issues faced by children with disabilities and developing solutions to address them. At the core of our approach is the principle of 'leaving no one behind,' which underscores the importance of inclusion for all. By working alongside individuals and groups representing persons with disabilities, underrepresented groups, and parents of children with disabilities, we can obtain firsthand insights into the actual needs of people with disabilities, especially children, and together, we can develop practical solutions,"
Kristine Hovhannisyan, Head of Equal Opportunities Department of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs of Armenia, who participated in the course, shares a similar perspective. She notes that such meetings are beneficial for both parties involved.
"The state has a responsibility to involve its citizens and interested organizations in developing policies and projects. Thus, I view this two-day meeting as highly significant, as it provides information, showcases reforms, and elicits feedback from interested organizations and citizens. These organizations, which work towards addressing such issues, gain a deeper understanding of the challenges at hand. This is a mutual process whereby participants not only present their findings but also identify other problems within the field that the state has yet to address or has only partially resolved. Through such collaborative efforts, we can strive to develop more effective solutions,"
The course participants agreed that this was a valuable opportunity to familiarize themselves with recent legislative changes and to gain insights into how similar issues are regulated in other countries. For parents of children with disabilities, such awareness-raising initiatives are particularly crucial, also because this is yet another platform to raise the issues they or their children are facing.
Ani Gabrielyan, head of Lusastgh NGO, has firsthand experience of the challenges that persons with disabilities encounter from early childhood to employment. Ani leads an active life full of work, cultural entertainment, and friends. She firmly believes that much depends on the individual and that reforms should start at the preschool level of education.
Recalling her experience, Ani notes that in 1999, they decided to open a new group at a preschool in Vanadzor for children with special educational needs to be able to enroll.
"The joy on the faces of parents, when their children were included in that kindergarten group was palpable. Parents could take care of their own needs for at least 3-4 hours while their children learned valuable skills. Although it was challenging, they trained several specialists, and the positive results were evident. Today, those children have grown up to be successful individuals, among them an employer, an active member of the public sector," Ani explains. "It is crucial to start early, from the preschool system, and then move on to schools, secondary professional institutions, universities, and employers."
Armine Melikyan has dwarfism and notes that in Armenia, people with this type of disability rarely speak out about the issues they face, unlike persons who use a wheelchair whose problems are more well-known. Armine highlights the numerous challenges that need to be addressed and adequately researched.
"Accessibility is a major issue for me due to my disability. For instance, the height of reception desks in medical institutions and banks is an artificial barrier. These are not old buildings that cannot be made accessible; it is just a matter of modifying a desk, which is inexpensive. In this instance, the needs of someone like me and that of someone who uses a wheelchair are similar. By achieving universal accessibility, a desk can be used by both parties. The same applies to the height of sinks and elevator buttons. I am not referring to issues arising from people's attitudes. There is a prevailing stereotype that individuals with dwarfism can only work at a circus or a theater, but they are not considered in other fields,"
She decided to break that stereotype by creating her own small business, making developmental toys from bamboo and cotton cloths under the brand name "Boo-B Toys." This brand is Armine's way of challenging all forms of discrimination.
Following the two-day session, an action plan was devised to further enhance the capacity of organizations committed to protecting and advocating for the rights of children with disabilities and amplifying their voices. The establishment of an umbrella organization that focuses on safeguarding and advocating for the rights of children with disabilities is on the agenda for the future, which will serve as a forum for concerned parties to come together, address issues, and efficiently combine resources and efforts.
UNICEF will continue to work with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and other stakeholders to enhance the legal framework for disability assessment reform, provide training to specialists in the field, including medical doctors and social workers, and equip unified social service centers with necessary medical and paramedical equipment. UNICEF will also support with the introduction of assistive devices for individuals with disabilities and the establishment of a center to prepare individuals, including children, for independent living. These measures are intended to help children and adolescents with disabilities develop new skills, achieve greater independence, and improve their opportunities as adults, all of which will contribute to greater level of social inclusion in the society.