In Armenia, children with disabilities and special educational needs have long been excluded from mainstream education. As a lower-middle-income country with widespread unemployment and poverty, resources for education are stretched thin, and the system of special schools is deeply entrenched. Negative attitudes towards disability, combined with feelings of shame, have led large numbers of children to be sent to special boarding schools, particularly in rural areas.
For the past 20 years, a nongovernmental organization called Bridge of Hope has played an important role in rethinking this outdated model. Founded in 1996 to support the social inclusion of children and youth with disabilities and special educational needs, it has expanded to include lobbying and awareness-raising work that aims to transform attitudes towards persons with disabilities in Armenia.
As a member of an official ministerial working group, Bridge of Hope contributed to enacting policy change by conducting a situation analysis, investigating the limitations of the existing education laws and the capacity for expanding inclusive education. One key aspect of Bridge of Hope’s field work has been the development of a number of experimental projects that bridge the gap between special and mainstream education.
For example, it produced a documentary that tracked the progress of inclusive education in pilot schools, spreading awareness of how the model would actually work in Armenia. A number of graduates with disabilities from inclusive mainstream schools also testified before the Armenian parliament in support of an inclusive education law.
These efforts have paid off. In December 2014, the new Law on Mainstream Education was passed and has since become national policy, providing a basis for reforming inclusive education throughout Armenia. The law provides a legal and financial framework for transferring children with disabilities and special educational needs from segregated special schools into inclusive mainstream schools.
A year after the law was passed, all secondary schools in Armenia are inclusive, and 220 primary schools across the country receive state funding to provide inclusive education to 4,000 students with disabilities and special educational needs. A key amendment resulting from the legislation also mandates that existing special schools be transformed into Psycho-Pedagogical Resource Centers, to assess and support the inclusion of every child with special educational needs and facilitate this transition. Based on its recent research on education transition with the Enabling Education Network, Bridge of Hope will oversee and train the staff at 20 such centers with support from UNICEF, which helped launch the first inclusive school in the country.
The inclusion of children with special educational needs and disabilities leads to equitable participation and shared experiences, which will in turn lead to a more integrated and enlightened society in Armenia. But inclusion is not just about access to quality early childhood and lifelong education, it’s about providing community-based services and equal opportunities for children and adults.
This participatory approach is exemplified by the organization’s Inclusive Theatre Troupe, comprised of young people both with and without disabilities. The group holds regular performances in the capital city of Yerevan’s theaters and has performed at children and youth theater festivals as well.
Another of Bridge of Hope’s flagship projects is a magazine called Arevatsaghik (Sunflower), which features articles on issues such as the right to education, community participation, and cultural values. All of the articles are written by children and teenagers who attend free journalism classes at Bridge of Hope’s offices. The magazine is a powerful advocacy tool for children’s rights, as each month 1,000 free copies and posters are distributed to every school in Yerevan and the Tavush Marz region.
These efforts don’t end at the national border. Bridge of Hope is also a founding member of the Caucasus Network for Children, which brings together civil society organizations working with vulnerable children in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and the North Caucasus region. Bridge of Hope also took part in the review process for Article 24 on education rights carried out by the UN Committee on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In 2014, Bridge of Hope was awarded the Emir Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah Prize by the director-general of UNESCO for its promotion of inclusive quality education for persons with intellectual disabilities.
Susanna Tadevosyan, Bridge of Hope’s director, feels that it is crucial to empower and build the capacity of parents so that they may become “watchdogs for the inclusion of their children at school.” Together, parents and schools can change attitudes of prejudice and discrimination throughout the region. The vision for the future is clear: special schools are a thing of the past; all mainstream schools will become inclusive in Armenia—and, hopefully, beyond.