This is the story of Ararat, a 16-year-old teenager.
He loves making crafts, painting, puzzling, playing sports, and helping his little sister with her homework. He goes to school in the morning with a tutor. In the afternoon he comes to an educational rehabilitation center for children and young people with autism.
Anahit has been working with him since he first arrived at the Center and knows him very well. She recalls: “When Ararat arrived at the Center, he was six years old. He faced difficulties while communicating with other kids and playing with them. He couldn’t wait for his turn when he was doing group work.” For the next 10 years, Anahit and other specialists worked with Ararat with two very clear objectives: to promote communication and to foment his independence in daily life activities. “Nowadays Ararat can point to what he wants and uses loose words to express his wishes,” says the Center's Social Program Coordinator, Susy Petrosyan.
Throughout these years, the specialists have also supported Ararat with the difficulties he faced in his daily life. His mother recounts: “He is much more independent now. Nowadays, Ararat can prepare breakfast on his own and sometimes lunch, too. He loves French fries. Potatoes are his favorite vegetable.” Ararat and his groupmates have spent time at a shopping mall, visited a theater, and also been to a cafe. They have also gone to a karaoke bar with the money that they had raised from selling their own hand-made cards.
In all these situations, adults were learning alongside the children. Susy says: “The first time we went to a coffee shop with the children, the waiters did not know what to do with them, how to approach them, how to talk to them, and what to tell them. It was very different the second time. They already knew them, had some experience, and were able to interact with them. It was a great achievement. Shifting mentality is a very difficult thing to accomplish but it is possible.”
Not only has Ararat changed his own behavior but the society has changed as well. UNICEF research indicates a positive trend in public attitudes towards children with disabilities. A comparative study of two surveys on public attitudes show that the society increasingly favors social inclusion of children with intellectual disabilities (63% in 2013, 73% in 2015), while there is a parallel decrease among respondents who think that children with intellectual disabilities should be isolated from the society (30% in 2013, 19% in 2015).
Ararat’s story is one example but there are many other children with intellectual disabilities throughout Armenia who do not attend school at all and do not have access to rehabilitation services to support their inclusion in the society. On the bright side, Armenia is in a middle of reform whereby all public schools are set to become inclusive by 2021, while special schools will turn into community-based day-care centers to provide rehabilitation services to children with disabilities, train and support their family members and provide technical support to public school teachers.
UNICEF supports the government in this reform agenda so that every child like Ararat has access to quality education, community-based day-care and rehabilitation services. Together with partners and with the support of USAID, UNICEF provides comprehensive inclusive education training to teachers from public schools so that they are prepared to foster good learning experiences for children with disabilities. UNICEF also holds inclusion workshops for parents and teachers to increase their awareness about disability and provide them with the skills and knowledge to support their children and enhance inclusion at home, at school and in the community.
We thank Tamar Ekserciyan for writing and
Emma Kirakosyan for editorial contributions.