First ever vocational education programme helps young people with disabilities become skilled gardeners and carpet weavers

In Armenia, where for decades disability has been associated with shame and secrecy, some youth with disabilities are finding their way out of isolation and into the labour market. Two schools have opened their doors to the country's first vocational education program for young people with disabilities.

Written by Tania Maria Lüders Rusbjerg, Mission East Journalist

26-year-old Mesrop struggles to keep hold of a shovel. The water jug isn’t easy to grasp, and the rake is hard to handle. When the students are taught to dig or sow flowers in the school garden, he struggles a little more than his classmates, who also have disabilities.

But Mesrop wants to be a gardener. Last autumn he was given the opportunity to receive an education, when, with help from Mission East, one of two schools in Armenia's capital city opened their doors to the country's first vocational education for young people with physical or mental disabilities.

These courses are a revolutionary change in the field of disability services for this former Soviet republic, where, for decades living with a disability like muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy or autism was considered a shameful misfortune to be hidden or ignored. Today, the situation has improved somewhat, but there are still parents who feel compelled to hide their children with disabilities at home,because the society around them conveys the message that they are 'abnormal' and therefore not fully accepted.

Employers are positive
Mesrop, with his physical challenges, insists on completing his three-year education programme without any special consideration. He is one of fifty-two students who have been chosen this year to be trained in nursery gardening or carpet weaving.

"These two subjects have been carefully selected according to a study from employers," says Susanna Tadevosyan, president of Mission East’s partner organization, Bridge of Hope which manages the project.
"In the nursery sector, we saw that employers are positive about employing people with disabilities as long as they perform the tasks satisfactorily. At the same time there is a demand for gardeners in places such as public parks, because skilled gardeners without disabilities prefer to work in more complex assignments," says Susanna Tadevosyan.

Hope for a new law in the future
Mission East is planning to support an expansion of the new vocational education program to reach an additional four schools in another region of Armenia, called Tavush.  Mission East’s Managing Director, Kim Hartzner says: "With full support, the first group of a further 500 young people with disabilities, can have the opportunity already in the autumn of 2010 to become skilled in a trade, so that they can one day support themselves." 
In Denmark, a law on the right to secondary education for young people with special needs was introduced in 2007 and today, about 2000 young people with mental or physical disabilities are receiving such an education.

Kim Hartzner has a similar vision for Armenia: "I hope that we can promote the introduction of a new law in Armenia in the near future which would make it a requirement,to offer everyone an education, just as it is in Denmark -  even though Armenia still lags far behind in this area compared to European countries."

Did you know
that in 2005, Armenia got introduced a new national law guaranteeing children with disabilities the same right to primary education as other children. The Act was adopted with the help of Mission East and it paved the way for the two new vocational programs that are in place today.

Read more about Mission East’s work in Armenia here