Yerjanik Gevorkyan, 79, is a Doctor of Philology, professor, winner of various awards and the author of many books. He lost his mother at an early age and his father was exiled to Siberia. As a result of serious injuries, he lost his eyesight when he was 3.
Yerjanik says that it is three times harder for a man with no sight to succeed, yet he has managed to do so. When he was in grade school, he dreamed of becoming an opera singer. He decided that that was too difficult or even impossible while studying at college and decided to become a writer and poet instead. However, that dream didn’t happen either. Then, when he was a senior at college, he dreamed of becoming a philologist, a goal which he finally realized.
Yerjanik is a happy man. Unlike him, however, there are many disabled in Armenia who are prevented from earning a living as a result of their disabilities from the moment they are born.
Anahit, 36, grew up in an orphanage. She was born without a hand and her paternal grandmother paid doctors to tell her mother that Anahit had died in the hospital after her birth. She found her mother at the age of 18 and subsequently reunited with her family.
Now Anahit is a single mother of Nare, who is 6 years old.
When people found out that I was expecting, they said, "She doesn't have a hand, how will she take care of a child? How will she bathe her? How will she dress her?" Let them come now and see.
Anahit is not alone in experiencing rejection, ignorance or indifference from society as a result of her disability.
According to a recent public opinion pull on people with disabilities prepared by the Civic Development and Partnership Foundation (CDPF) in 2012, almost 1/3 of Armenian citizens are either indifferent or avoid or deride people with disabilities.
Source: Report on Public Opinion Poll About People with Disabilities and Their Employment, Yerevan, 2012.
These attitudes are also similar in the other two countries of the South Caucasus, Armenia and Georgia.
Salome lives in Tbilisi, Georgia and has been using a wheelchair for ten years. Two years ago she joined the non-governmental organization Accessible Environment for Everyone, an organization whose mission is to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. Its projects concentrate on raising awareness about and the activities of people with disabilities.
"The community is quite passive due to the different challenges. We need more energy from them to overcome what needs to be overcome. As for people, their reactions are various: wonder and temporary estrangement or alienation, and pity is the most noticeable reaction."
Unemployment is another large obstacle for people with disabilities in the South Caucasus. Of the 540,000 people with disabilities in Azerbaijan, only 5.6% are employed. The lack of infrastructure adapted for people with disabilities does not enable people with disabilities to move and work independently. In addition, in many cases laws are simply not implemented. According to current legislation, people with disabilities should comprise at least 20% of all employees in state agencies, however this is not the case.
Photo: Eltaj Zeynalov
Rahmanov Ahmed, who was disabled during the Karabakh War, has Category 2 disabilities. Despite problems with his health, he resigned from the army in 1992, but chose to go to war on his own. After two years of fighting and 3 injuries later, he decided to return to Azerbaijan.
Ahmed now is married and has two children. The eldest son, Rafael, suffers from autism. Ahmed has been out of work for approximately six months. His pension is 280 AZN (358 USD) a month, and of that amount 200 AZN is used for Rafael’s treatment. In addition, Rafael requires a special diet, for which many of the ingredients must be purchased abroad.
Full integration into society remains the main obstacle for people with disabilities. Working and living independently is not easy in the South Caucasian countries due to the lack of accessible infrastructure available. Paradoxically, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are all signatories of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) which guarantees an accessible environment for people with disabilities.
What does Accessibility mean?
When a place is accessible, it means that all people, including people with disabilities, are able to enter a place, move around inside freely, access information, and complete transactions independently - without help from others.
In Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, most places are not accessible. And even though some organizations have attempted to adapt their environment to make them more accessible, they did not adhere to well-known accessibility standards, causing those environments to remain inaccessible.
It is unknown how much the government in each South Caucasus country spends or plans to spend to adapt locales and services for people with disabilities.