Nver Mirzoyan, an 8-year old child in Hobartsi, Armenia, suffers from congenital cerebral palsy and was able to attend school for only a few months a year.  During winter he stopped going entirely because his mother—the sole breadwinner of the family—was busy earning money through odd jobs and Nver could not reach the school in his home-made wheelchair.  Through a USAID-funded program, Stepanavan ADP and their partner DPO, “Full Life” intervened on Nver’s behalf, and obtained the agreement of the Hobartsi school Principal to accept Nver in his school beginning in September 2009.  The school was also targeted for modifications to improve accessibility as part of the USAID program.  A ramp was constructed for the school which made the school entrance accessible for Nver.  “Full Life” is working with his school and providing them with an inclusive education toolkit, helping the staff and children to better integrate Nver and children like him into the school community.

Armenian researcher conducting street poll on disability issues. Photo Credit: World Vision

Unfortunately, the stories of most people with disabilities (PWD) in Europe and Eurasia do not end as happily as Nver’s. In most countries in the region it is estimated that somewhere between 3% and 10% of the population is living with some form of disability.  Children with disabilities are typically relegated to “special schools” where they obtain an inferior education or they may be kept out of school altogether by parents who fear the stigma attached to their child’s disability. Very few schools in the region are able to offer inclusive education, although there are some efforts to improve this situation, including several funded by USAID. Also, adults with disabilities are very rarely employed. For example, estimates are that less than 10% of the adults with disabilities in Armenia have jobs. Due to the combination of high levels of unemployment and the meager disability benefits that are offered across the region, individuals with disabilities are at great risk of living in poverty. Given that social services for PWDs are also largely absent, the conditions under which they live are often dire.

USAID Missions in many countries in the region are funding programs designed to address the many barriers that keep PWDs from realizing their human rights and that make it difficult for them to be included in the social and economic life of their communities. For example, in Montenegro, USAID is helping to build a lodge in Durmitor National Park that is specially adapted to the needs of young people with disabilities so that by next summer as many as 160 disabled youth will be able to take advantage of outdoor activities available. Through the Equal Access for Equal Opportunities project in Macedonia, all 334 central primary schools were assessed to gauge the capacity of schools to be inclusive and to provide services to children with disabilities, especially through the use of assistive technology. The resulting statistics are able to quantify for the first time the needs of children and what must be done in the school system to meet these needs. USAID/Russia, USAID/Albania, and USAID/Serbia are all working on activities designed to increase the likelihood that PWDs will be able to obtain jobs by helping to amend laws and policies, providing vocational and skills building opportunities, organizing job fairs, and other innovative services.  While in Russia earlier this year, I met Denise Roza the Director of the Russian disability rights NGO, Perspektiva. She has amazing positive energy, and through Perspektiva, has been working to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities in Russia. Rosa pointed out that over the last decade they have been able to partner with disability organizations through 15 regions in Russia!

On Friday, our Missions joined the international community in celebrating the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.  In Georgia, in collaboration with the Ministry of Labor, Health and Social Affairs (MoLHSA), USAID and its implementing partners held a conference designed to highlight the existing state policies related to PWDs, present the state programs that have been implemented in line with Georgia’s three-year national disability action plan, and describe government strategies/programs for 2011.

Having marked the 2010 International Day of Persons with Disabilities last week, we will now keep working every day to advance fundamental rights for people with disabilities so that they may live a more equitable life with greater opportunity.