By UNICEF Armenia/Marianna Grigoryan

When 12-year-old Gevorg was only a baby, his mother noticed that the boy’s movements differed from other children, so she decided to consult a doctor.

She was told the boy had infantile cerebral stroke, which would result in mental retardation and musculoskeletal system disorder.

The disorder, the mother says, was a result of social hardship.

Now when we recall the difficulties our family had to face to raise Gevorg and give him more or less a normal life, it seems somehow unreal,” says Gevorg’s mother, Maro Sinanyan. “We still keep struggling everyday. But what happened three years ago was truly a miracle for us, a miracle we couldn’t have even dreamed of.”

Three years ago, on September 2 when other children of his age were in the second form, Gevorg returned to the first form and entered a class that divided his life and emotions into two stages – before that day, and after.

The “before” stage is not so pleasant for the boy to recall.

Before attending a regular school with an inclusive education system and studying together with other children, for a year Gevorg went to a special school.

All he learned during that year was to scribble a crooked figure “1” and, equally crooked, the first letter of the Armenian alphabet.

“It had always seemed to me that despite the mental and physical problems, my child had more capacities than other pupils of the special school,” tells Maro. “But I didn’t know that conditions had been created for children like Gevorg to attend regular schools along with other children and get equal education.”

Everything changed when Gevorg and his mother visited Bridge of Hope NGO. With UNICEF’s support the NGO helps children with special needs and their families to integrate into the society and start a new life.

Following the visit to Bridge of Hope, Gevorg and his mother finally chose Mkhitar Sebastatsi school, one out of six secondary schools offering an inclusive education program.

The school which now counts 1500 students has successfully included some 55 children and young adults with special needs.

It was here that Gevorg’s “after” life began.

With a happy smile Gevorg says he loves his school and is very glad to study there. He says he has many friends, waving to Haik, Tsovinar and others to join him.

In a year after his enrolment with the new school, Gevorg learned the alphabet and figures. Some time later with the help of his friends he started formulating his thoughts.

“Among the former USSR countries Armenia was the first to introduce inclusive education,” says Bridge of Hope president Susanna Tadevosyan. “It was high time to do that though many schools had not yet fully overcome the dogmatic attitude towards the fact that children with special needs could study at the same place with other children. But in the recent years even in this field the progress has been obvious.”

According to the Ministry of Education and Science there are over 8,900 children with disabilities in Armenia. The inclusive education system was officially adopted in Armenia in 2005 and the government committed to allocate a portion from the education budget under the development of inclusive education.

“Scaling up investments in, and commitments to, inclusive education is essential, if all children are to exercise their right to go to school”, says UNICEF Representative Sheldon Yett. Armenia has made a great start but further progress will require more efforts in social outreach, training teachers and ensuring schools have the physical infrastructure that some children with disabilities require.”

“As of today, over 200 children with special needs study at Yerevan’s six schools with inclusive education system,” says Anahit Muradyan, the Senior Specialist at the General Education Department of the Ministry of Education and Science. “With UNICEF’s support we also plan to expand the number of schools offering inclusive education. In this context particular attention will be paid to children living in Armenia’s provinces.”

Specialists at inclusive schools state that since 2005 the number of families willing to send their children to study at those schools has been growing steadily.

“The role of parents is crucial. Inclusive education unites parents as well. Support groups are being formed. Parents having similar problems consult with each other and get acquainted with each other’s problems. And they get excited when their children have success,”says Haykush Gevorgyan, a social worker from Bridge of Hope.

As the specialists at the Ministry of Education and Science and NGOs assure, inclusive education was important and necessary in many respects.

“There are 23 students in my class, 3 out of whom are children with special needs. I have noticed that their presence has changed other children. They have become more caring and attentive to each other,” says Nelli Tovmasyan, a teacher at Mkhitar Sebastatsi school. “The establishment of inclusive education system is very helpful for further development of these children as well as for raising the awareness level of other children studying side by side.”

The wheelchair of 10-year-old Manvel stands in the classroom corner. To move to the desk for this boy with serious locomotion system problems means his mother must carry him, with the help of the form-master and his classmates.

The principal of Mkhitar Sebastatsi school, Ashot Bleyan, agrees that inclusive education system helps to develop many positive features in children. However, at present the schools in Armenia lack proper facilities and equipment to provide conditions for children with special needs. “The schools we have are not suitable even for healthy children, then how can they possibly fit children who need special care?”

“I have to go to school 4 times a day,” says Arev, Manvel’s mother. “When my child needs to go to the lavatory, I come to school from home and with the teacher’s help take him there. Of course, everything would be much better, if those problems were settled. Nevertheless getting education through this system is a splendid opportunity for Manvel and me.”

Bridge of Hope president Sussanna Tadevosyan says that children with special needs face numerous problems, the most important of them being discrimination.

“Mostly society treats the disabled negatively, and the establishment of inclusive education will, hopefully, introduce positive changes in that respect,” says Tadevosyan. “Parents are concerned that their kids are stared at and pointed at, but the situation is changing. I am confident that with inclusive education expanding to yet more schools in Armenia, there will come a time when the rooted dogmas will become history.”

For more information, please contact:

Emil Sahakyan, Information & Communications Officer, UNICEF Armenia

Tel.: (374 10) 52 35 46, 56 64 97, 58 01 74