Unison Armenia

By Denise Nanni and Milena Rampoldi, ProMosaik. In the following our interview with Armen Alaverdyan, Executive Director of Unison in Armenia, an organisation supporting people with disabilities and struggling for their social inclusion. Unison stands for the human rights of people with disability. Would like to thank Armen for his detailled answers. For ProMosaik, it is fundamental to exchange information with social and human rights organisations all over the world to learn inclusion and dialogue one from another. 

What are the main problems that people with disabilities face within society? Are prejudice playing an important role into preventing their social inclusion?
More than 204,000 of people are officially registered as persons with disabilities (PWDs) in Armenia. PWDs across Armenia face significant obstacles hindering their meaningful participation in the societal, cultural, economic and political life of the country and their inclusion in the community.
Although Armenia ratified CRPD in 2010, most of the Convention’s provisions are widely violated/ignored (Articles 2, 9, 19, 30 etc.). To bring the national legislation in compliance with the CRPD, the draft law on the rights protection and social inclusion of PWDs has been developed, which, when adopted, will be a definite step forward in terms of legislation. The process of the adoption of this law has lasted unreasonably much time. Currently, there is a hope that the law will be adopted by the National Assembly early in 2017.
Little has been done in terms of practical implementation of the CRPD. The CRPD implementation guidelines, which are meant to foster execution of the CRPD in practice, have not been adapted for the Armenian reality and are not exercised in Armenia.
Legal issues are one of the main impediments to societal integration of PWDs. The legislative gaps and contradictions make it difficult for PWDs to implement their rights, thus lowering their motivation to execute their rights.
One of the most important decision making processes Armenian PWDs are widely excluded from are the elections. Due to the inaccessibility of the polling stations and lack of accessible information/communications, numerous PWDs are prevented from and/or not interested in participating in the elections. Unison has continually implemented monitoring and observation of key electoral process in the country. The recent accessibility monitoring implemented by Unison (2013) found that 93.15% of Polling Stations in Yerevan are inaccessible for wheelchair-users. In addition, alternative voting formats (e-voting, proxy voting and mobile polling stations) that can ensure PWDs’ participation in Elections despite the lack of accessibility are not allowed by the Electoral Code of Armenia. The rights of blind and deaf voters are also frequently violated.
The physical inaccessibility of the majority of public venues and facilities further fosters exclusion of PWDs from the Armenian society.
Because of poor quality or absence of relevant public services, PWDs are frequently denied the opportunity for personal growth and acquisition of skills necessary for independent living and full participation.
Over 170 schools in Armenia are officially inclusive; however, the school buildings and facilities are not accessible and the curricula is not inclusive for all children with disabilities. Furthermore, schools lack trained staff and other human, technical and physical resources to ensure the effective education of children with different types of disabilities. Inclusive Education is essentially a formality: even when children with disabilities are physically present in the classroom, they are precluded from full participation in all educational and extra-curricular opportunities available to schoolchildren in Armenia.
The situation with higher education is analogous: the overwhelming majority of higher education institutions and programs are non-inclusive and inaccessible for PWDs. With support of OSCE, Unison was the first to undertake significant measures aimed at enhancing the inclusiveness of higher education in Armenia. In 2014, we implemented the first-in-Armenia large scale survey on the Accessibility and Inclusiveness of Higher Education for PWDs in Armenia. Among other key issues, barriers and challenges, the survey found that 96% of Higher Education Institutions are inaccessible for PWDs and students with disabilities comprise only 0.5% of all higher education students in Armenia. Based on the key priorities identified by the survey, in 2015 Unison developed and promoted an Inclusive Policy of Higher Education in Armenia, which was recognized by key stakeholders, including the RA Ministry of Education and Science. This year, following up on our efforts in the field of higher education, Unison formed a Group of Experts comprised of representatives of key stakeholder groups (including PWDs) and developed Standards of Higher Education. Considerable progress has been made in the sphere of Vocational and Technical Education. In the frameworks of the LIFE (Livelihood Improvement for Fostered Employment) program, in which Unison was an implementing partner, succeeded in placing more than 900 PWDs in long or short-term vocational education programs during the past 4 years.
Perhaps the most significant challenge to PWDs inclusion in the Armenian society is the low level of employment of PWDs. While the unemployment rate of the overall society is around 18%, more than 90% of PWDs in Armenia are officially unemployed. Key factors contributing to such low level of employment are stereotypical attitudes of employers and their lack of understanding of PWDs’ skills and employment potential, the inaccessibility of work environments, legislative gaps and contradictions, as well as the lack of marketable proficiencies and independent living skills among PWDs.
To address these issues, Unison established the Job Training and Placement Center back in 2006 and started providing job and career related consultation, training and workshops to PWDs, while simultaneously establishing partnerships with potential employers, challenging their stereotypical perceptions and building awareness about actual abilities, skills and potential of PWDs. The aforementioned LIFE program provided Unison the opportunity to widen our efforts in the field of employment. We succeeded in providing Independent Living and Job Search training to more than 600 PWDs, implemented a number of effective advocacy and awareness-raising campaigns, organized 4 targeted job-fairs, and, most importantly, placed more than 100 PWDs into gainful employment. Additionally, we established the Unison Studio, a social enterprise which employs PWDs who provide digital services such as photography, photo editing and retouching, video editing, scanning and digitizing, etc. The studio also provides digital services to customers overseas.
Prejudices, stigma and stereotypes against PWDs are prevalent in the Armenian society and can be considered the key underlying issue hindering the inclusion of PWDs and the realization of their rights. PWDs are often perceived as weak, helpless and incapable persons constantly suffering from birth defects or horrible misfortunes and dreaming about becoming “normal”. PWDs engaged in any type of activity (employment, education, culture, politics, etc.) are perceived as “special” individuals, as “heroes” who have “overcome their disability” due to super-human will and motivation. In essence, PWDs are considered abnormal and are not perceived as full and equal members of the society. 
How does the independent living approach effect a person with disabilities? What are the benefits for his physical and psychological health?
The ratification of the CRPD by the Republic of established a favorable groundwork for implementation of substantial reforms towards inclusion of PWDs in the Armenian society. However, PWDs continue facing significant environmental and attitudinal challenges obstructing effective realization of their right to independent living, which consequently impedes their inclusion in the community.
One of the main challenges hindering PWDs’ participation in the societal life of the country is their lack of independence: Armenian PWDs are largely dependant on their families both for financial support and assistance in their daily activities, to the extent that family members make important decisions affecting the lives of PWDs. To address this situation, Unison introduced the Independent Living Movement to Armenia through establishment of the first-in-Armenia Center for Independent Living (CIL) in Yerevan in 2006. To further the Independent Living philosophy in Armenia, in 2013 Unison initiated and co-founded the Armenian Network for Independent Living (ANIL), a coalition uniting the leading disability-rights organizations in Armenia. These NGOs deal with all major types of disabilities: visual, hearing, mobility, mental, developmental etc. However, despite these efforts, the Independent Living Movement concept is yet to be recognized and widely accepted in Armenia.
Due to low level of awareness, lack of accessible infrastructures and relevant services, as well as the specific mentality (which considers it normal for adults to rely on parents for both financial and other support), PWDs in marzes (administrative regions of Armenia) are more dependent on their families than those living in Yerevan.
The independent living approach is essential to the inclusion of PWDs and realization of their rights and freedoms, since this approach, also called “Independent Living Philosophy” or “Independent Living Model”, aims to free PWDs from undue and unwanted dependency. This approach helps achieve self-reliance among PWDs and ensure full access to all services, processes, programs and opportunities.
Can you tell me more about the art and computer training services that you offer?
Young people with disabilities (mostly with mental disabilities) attend the art training. The lessons are held twice per week for each of the 2 groups. For the students, it is a good chance of fulfilling their creative potential. We have noticed personal growth of many of the students. For example, some young guys who were not able to communicate with others and used to frequently violate the accepted norms, now are fully communicable and adequate. The attendees of the art studio participate in various exhibitions; sometimes there is a possibility to sell their works.
The computer training is part of larger training series within the Job Training and Placement Center at Unison. The participants of the training are taught to successfully take job interviews, their CV-writing and other relevant skills are enhanced. Given that the majority of employers require at least basic computer literacy skills, the participants are taught these skills and therefore become more competitive at the labor market. We organize both group and individual training customized to the needs of participants.
Additionally, we offer individual computer training to persons with vision impairments and blind persons. The training provides PWDs with necessary skills to use essential computer programs with special audio software, which fosters their independent living and aids in the job-search process.
Is Armenian society responsive to your efforts?
Yes, increasingly so. While several years ago it was quite a challenge to meaningfully engage the Armenian society in our activities, due to large-scale awareness-raising efforts and communications campaigns implemented by Unison and other DPOs during the recent years, we have noticed significant progress in the level and quality of feedback we receive from the general society. For example, some of our PSAs have more than 83,000 views on Youtube – this is significant, because most PSAs/social videos have no more than 1000 views in Armenia.
Especially important for us is the readiness of the society to participate in and contribute to various disability-focused public activities: exhibitions, concerts, flash-mobs, public debates and discussions, presentations, film screenings, etc. For instance, our most recent event, “Dreams and Reality” which was a combination of a photo-exhibition, LIVE forum and video screenings, packed full one of the biggest cinema halls in Armenia.
The growing interest of media in disability-related issues, news and events further confirms the positive changes in the responsiveness of the society towards our efforts. While in the past having our events covered by 1-2 media outlets was considered a success, now we have almost all TV Channels present at our events. Furthermore, Unison staff members are often interviewed or invited to participate in TV programs as independent experts.
Do you cooperate at any level with local/national authorities? If yes, how?
Unison cooperates with all of the key stakeholders including state agencies: Ministry of Labor and Social Issues, Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Science and Education, State Committee on Urban Planning, Municipality of Yerevan and others. The cooperation with the Ministry of Labor and Social Issues enables us to more effectively protect the rights of PWDs and resolve some of the urgent issues. Unison participates in the discussions on the new disability-related legislation and luckily our voice is mostly heard: many of our suggestions become part of the national legislation (e.g., the quota system which was heavily promoted by Unison, was included in the Law on Employment in 2014). Especially successful is the cooperation of Unison with the Yerevan Municipality; due to this cooperation, 25 accessible city buses operate now in Yerevan, the crossroads and pavements are equipped with compliant curb ramps, etc.
Do you think that policy makers and institutions could do more in order to address the issues of people with disabilities? If yes, how?
Yes. The majority of the policy makers ignore the principle of the international disability community, “Nothing About Us Without Us”. Many laws, regulations and policies are adopted with no prior consultations with disabled people’s organizations (DPOs). In order to more effectively address the issues of PWDs, policy makers should consult with DPOs and avoid making non-compliant disability-related adaptations (e.g., constructing non-compliant ramps). Recognizing the importance of inclusive and participatory policy-making, Unison recently initiated and implemented an international program fostering inclusive decision-making for PWDs in Armenia, Georgia and Moldova. In the frameworks of the program, we implemented an Index of Participation research aimed at evaluating the accessibility and inclusiveness of decision-making processes and structures in the three countries, after which an educational and advocacy campaign was implemented.
The program has helped as identify the specific barriers hindering PWDs’ participation in decision-making in Armenia, which will help us design and implement well-targeted and effective measures to enhance the inclusiveness of decision-making in Armenia in the near future.
01 – Opening of an inclusive playground at the Yerevan Zoo
02 – At the Armenian Ministry of Emergency Situation
03 – Opening of the new accessible bus routes in Yerevan
04 – Reception of the new wheelchairs
05 – Universal Rights Award 2015 – “Promoting Inclusion Award” goes to Armen Alaverdyan
06 – Poster “I am Employed”