By Aram Arkun
BELMONT, Mass. – The Cambridge-Yerevan Sister City Association (CYSCA) organized a panel discussion called Disabilities and Social Inclusion in Armenia: Challenges and Opportunities, which was held with the cosponsorship of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research at the latter’s headquarters last month, on May 26. Five female specialists in disabilities visiting from Armenia spoke. Former Massachusetts governor Michael S. Dukakis was a special guest at the program.
CYSCA Program Director Alisa Stepanian, who served as moderator that evening, provided the background to the visit of Armenian panelists. They were invited to the US as part of the Congressionally-sponsored Open World program, which is the only Federal exchange program working with former Soviet countries. It chooses timely themes and identifies candidates likely to benefit from a working visit to the US, who then are approved by the US embassy in Yerevan. Meanwhile, local organizations in the US bid to host groups. This was the third time that CYSCA has bid and won.
The Armenian group came for one week, May 22 to 29, and CYSCA found five local Armenian families to host the specialists. CYSCA helped organize visits with US government officials at various levels as well as organizations and universities involved in disabilities work, including the Perkins School for the Blind, the MA Disability Law Center, Boston Center for Independent Living, Arc of MA, and Cambridge City Disabilities Commission. The theme for the visit was expanding social inclusion in Armenia for the disabled, in education, work and other spheres of life.
Prior to the panel discussion, Stepanian introduced Governor Dukakis to the audience and gave him the opportunity to say a few words (see accompanying article). He also participated in the discussion at the end of the program.
After the governor’s brief presentation, the five visiting Armenians each introduced themselves and spoke about their work. Three were able to speak in fluent English, while the two who could not benefited from the use of an interpreter, Anahit Flanagan. Rinet Isajyan, who works in the US embassy in Yerevan, accompanied the group to the US to facilitate its trip. She told the audience that one of the priorities of the US embassy is social inclusion, which is why it supported the trip and the activities of the organizations for which the Armenian visitors worked.
Meri Hakobyan, principal of one of the two middle schools in the city of Meghri, in the southernmost part of Armenia, bordering Iran, said that her school was the first in the region to begin an inclusion program in 2005. She said, “Everyone feared when we first began that we could not achieve any progress, since a long time was needed to implement the program.”
She said that there were students who had never gone to school because of their disabilities, while parents resisted and were difficult to work with. To deal with these obstacles, the school began training courses for children, teachers and parents. It attempted to explain to them that all people were equal. Now there are 10 students included in the program in this school with 167 students.
Hakobyan said that seeing how Americans have overcome many problems over the years, “gave me great hope that we will also overcome a lot of obstacles, and succeed in educating the public so that they all view each other as equals.” She said that she hoped that one day the strong state support for programs for the handicapped in the US would be replicated in Armenia.
Mariana Matosyan, a teacher of disabled children in High School No. 1 in Gumri, said that her school also implements the inclusive educational approach, so that out of 200 children, 35 have psychological, physical and mental disabilities. The children without disabilities must be psychologically prepared to study together with the disabled, so preparatory work took place in stages for the teachers, students and the parents. There are afterschool programs till 5 p.m, and a day camp during vacations. Both are run by volunteers.
Matosyan exclaimed, “During the visits we made [in the US], nearly all organizations were dissatisfied with at least something that was lacking in their work, but when I compare this with the work in our field in Armenia, it is actually incomparable since even elementary means are lacking with us.” She thanked the Open World program for truly providing an open world for them here, and said that she returns to Armenia with great impressions, as well as useful information and experiences.
Sofi Nersisyan, project developer for the Children’s Assistance Fund, a nongovernmental organization working in Hrazdan, related that she has been working for this organization for nearly ten years. This fund was able to establish a daycare center for children with disabilities almost two years ago with support from three different international organizations. The US embassy in Yerevan gave a grant to expand programming; USAID provided money to furnish the center; and the Polish embassy provided funding to renovate the second floor of the center and to expand the program. There are 80 clients who use the center. Most have psychological or intellectual disabilities. Psychologists, therapists, social works and a special education teacher work at the center. Special classes in art, chess, theater and other fields are offered. Some of the children developed to the point that they do not need to come there any longer.
Nersisyan declared, also in English, that “When I came here [to the US], I did not imagine that I could take so many things back to Armenia, but whatever I saw was incredible, just amazing. I have seen so many innovative things that we can use in Armenia without having large sums of money.”
Satenik Papyan works at World Vision in Stepanavan, a small town in Lori Province 35 minutes by car from Vanadzor. Her office serves the entire province, and she works as the child protection and education coordinator. World Vision International is an Evangelical Christian humanitarian aid, development and advocacy organization with its headquarters in California. Its goal is to support the most vulnerable children so that they can be raised in a non-abusive inclusive environment and have a better life.
Papyan also is involved in the Full Life NGO, a smaller organization in Stepanavan which works to assure the full integration of people with disabilities in society. It runs a daycare center for children with the inclusive approach, so that there are children with and without disabilities together. Children from economically vulnerable families are accepted so they get to have access to some afterschool programs. Full Life also runs an inclusive summer camp program for 200 children every summer who learn life skills and the independence to spend time without their families.
Full Life runs in partnership with Save the Children and other organizations an employment improvement program called Life Project for adults. It helps them prepare for job interviews, provides coaching, and helps adults find jobs. It did some social entrepreneurship with its partner organizations so that people with disabilities can be hired. It also does some advocacy to ensure quality services for people with disabilities as much as possible considering the limitations in Armenia.
Lusine Saghumyan, project coordinator of the Child Development Foundation in Yerevan (www.cdf.am), said that she works both in the capital and in the provinces. Her organization, she said, provides specialized services to children with developmental disabilities such as psychological help, speech therapy, social worker support, art therapy and a communication club for adults with disabilities, as well as preschool projects. Parents and teachers are given training by specialists in the field, and the organization tries to defend the human rights of people with disabilities.
It offers an inclusive theater group to encourage self-awareness and self-expression. Their performances are given in the provinces. It designs and produces developmental toys and games for children, while the parents of children with disabilities do craft work that the foundation sells. The profit is used to support families with disabilities.
The panelists listed a number of things they learned from the trip. They were amazed at how in some places, like the Perkins School for the Blind, ordinary cardboard or cartons that would be thrown away are used to build useful items. Programming in schools like that of the Understanding Our Differences NGO based in Newton, Mass. giving presentations to children with speakers and showing examples of different disabilities would be a good educational tool for Armenian society. They saw for the first time outside of television shows a sign language interpreter for the deaf at Stonehill College, which would be another great service to emulate in Armenia. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they saw that students all engage in practical or applied work. This is more useful than just learning primarily theoretical knowledge, as is the case now in Armenia, especially when this knowledge also is often an outdated remnant of Soviet times.
Perhaps, wondered one panelist, it would be possible to create an industry in Armenia to produce the special aids needed by the handicapped, such as wheelchairs. This would hopefully make these items more accessible financially, and also create more jobs for Armenians.
Several of the panelists declared that one of the great benefits of the US trip was that they got to know one another, and they might try to pursue some collaborative projects upon their return. One noted that fully accessible group homes for the disabled providing multiple services do not exist at present in Armenia, but collaborative efforts at creating them could provide examples for the country as to what the infrastructure for people with disabilities should look like.
The visitors did have some worries. For example, when comparing Armenia to the US, aside from the disparity in resources in general, even if the Armenian state were to place more priority on education, many who become educated emigrate. This is a great blow to Armenia, as human resources are the main advantages that this country enjoys at present.
On a more specific topic, Saghumyan noted that during the trip, the Armenians met many parents and specialists who supported maintain specialized schools to provide a better education for the disabled, while continuing the inclusive approach. In Armenia, reforms aim at converting the specialized schools by 2022 into resource centers. Saghumyan returns to Armenia wondering, she said, “whether we need to eliminate all the specialized schools [in Armenia].”
When one speaker expressed concern that strategic planning for the disabled is lacking in Armenia, and in general the Armenian state and society do not have resources available to accomplish what Americans have done, Governor Dukakis hastened to encourage the visitors. He said, “Forty years ago things in this state [Massachusetts] were terrible, so believe me, it was not always this way. It is so much better now. Don’t be discouraged.” The governor also offered to put Armenians in touch with the New England Center for Children, on whose board he serves, as it is a model for working with autistic children.
For more information on the Open World program and CYSCA contact Alisa Stepanian at asteoanian @aol.com or Jack Medzorian at firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.cysca.org.