Inclusive education was a hot topic in Armenia this summer. The current reform will ensure that all Armenian schools become inclusive in the next decade. There are 181 inclusive schools currently, open for all children with no distinction; 42 of which became inclusive this year.
Armenia embarked on the path towards inclusive education in 2001. During those years the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) closely collaborated and supported the Government, particularly in the development of the national strategy and underlying legislative instruments, transformation of special schools, aligning the assessment tools of children with special needs with the principles of international classification of Functioning, Disability and Health developed by the World Health Organization. UNICEF also provided training for the directors, teachers and parents of inclusive schools, as well as worked to raise public awareness around the reform.
The final stage of the reforms is the direct result of the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by Armenia in 2010, which assumed an international commitment to align acting legislation with the requirements of the Convention. One of the major conceptual changes that the Convention provided for is that persons with disabilities should be included, rather than integrated, in the society. According to UNICEF Armenia Communication Officer Zara Sargsyan, the difference in the terms is that: “Integration implies that persons with disabilities are simply present, make use of services foreseen only for them, whereas inclusion means creation of equal opportunities and a relevant environment so that disability does not prevent people from benefiting from and participating in all the processes that are accessible to other members of the community.”
According to UNICEF’s “It’s About Inclusion” research report from 2012, one in 5 children with disabilities does not attend school. This rate is lower in the regions (1 in 4). Children with musculoskeletal and intellectual disabilities are more likely to be left out of school. When asked for reasons why children with disabilities do not attend school, respondents’ main argument was that these children do not have the capacity to study in a mainstream school. To UNICEF, this opinion is based on the lack of awareness about the nature of education reforms.
While attending school a child with disability is provided with an individual learning plan, prepared by a specialist, which corresponds to his/her abilities and guides learning. During the classes, the teacher is to be assisted by an assistant instructor whose work contributes to the regular course of the class. The school also receives additional funding from the state budget in order to ensure necessary conditions for students with disabilities, which may include provision of relevant learning materials, ensuring physical accessibility or other things depending on the child’s and the school’s needs.
When properly organized and delivered, inclusive education for both children with or without disability means an opportunity to achieve individual educational goals, develop self-confidence, improve interpersonal communication skills, to continue to be included later on in life, form a positive and prejudice-free outlook on life, make friends and develop mutual trust, as well as lead a full-fledged life in a family and the society.
Normal life rather than heroism
Despite his young age Tigran Gevorgyan has quite a number of achievements. Tigran represented Armenia three times in the Special Olympics – in 2007 in China, in 2011 in Greece and this year in the USA, where he became a world champion in freestyle swimming two times (2011, 2015). Besides being a world champion Tigran starred in Shant TV’s television series this year, which was an important experience both for the TV company and himself. It was also a novelty for the viewers. There was a lot of positive feedback, says Zara Sargsyan. “It is not easy to appear on the screen with no acting background and represent a person whose adventures were followed by so many in Armenia and the diaspora.”
This year Tigran also graduated from Mkhitar Sebastatsi school with the specialization of a hairdresser. He started his education in a special school but it was only after moving to a mainstream public school that Tigran acquired so much more. He was quick to make friends, find his specialty and make plans for the future. Tigran’s eyes shine, “I have a girlfriend and we want to get married in the future.” Tigran’s mother, Ruzanna, wishes for her son to have a stable job and keep on doing what he loves.
Siranush Martirosyan graduated from Yerevan School after Gai while also being a member of numerous clubs. She went to TUMO Center for Creative Technologies and was a member of the Center’s TmbaTa band, where she danced. Siranush’s mother raised her and her brother who also has a disability, alone. Last year Ms. Meri was one of the speakers at the Activate Talk event organized by UNICEF where she talked about her experiences and the importance of inclusive education. “In Armenia raising a child with disability is considered to be a feat of heroism because there are no supporting conditions, but my children are doing excellent at school and are interested in many things,” noted Meri Martirosyan during her speech. “Whereas, if I moved my children to a boarding school or an orphanage, the state would allocate huge funds to those institutions to have my children fed, cared for and educated. But when I deal with it myself and get such results that no state institution would be able to achieve, state officials marvel at it but help with absolutely nothing.” However, Siranush’s mother is sure that Armenia has the potential to create equal opportunities for children with disabilities. According to her, it requires development of a relevant legislative package based on international best practices and making efficient use of resources available in the country.
In the focus rather than in the shade
In 2013, UNICEF conducted a survey in Armenia with regard to attitudes towards children with disabilities – physical and intellectual. The results differed from each other. In the case of physical disability, 95 per cent of respondents were for inclusion, while in the case of intellectual disability, one third of the respondents had a negative attitude. The follow-up survey conducted two years later revealed an average 10-15 per cent increase in the number of respondents who were for inclusion of children with disabilities. The results demonstrate a positive shift in attitudes towards children with disabilities, giving a hope for success for inclusive education in the country. The year of 2016 holds a significant opportunity in these terms, as it will be the year of equal opportunities for persons with disabilities in Armenia. Perhaps these issues will finally get out of the shade and attract the public focus.
* The Armenian version of the article was published in the special issue of Yerevan magazine, October 2015, dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the United Nations.