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Champion Suren is looking forward to getting a call

15 February 2018
Suren Balasanyan (Photo from personal archives)

It’s no secret that finding a job is more difficult for people with disabilities. Solving issues of professional development and social well-being is also more difficult for them.

According to points two, three, and four of Article 20 of the Republic of Armenia’s law on employment (in force since January 2015), people with disabilities have the right to employment. At least 3% of the workforce in state agencies with 100 and more employees must come from these social groups. The minimum threshold for non-state organisations is 1%.

Mediamax spoke with a number of adults with disabilities who are trying to build their careers in their professions. In their cases, their disabilities have not come as a limitation.

So what problems do they face in the job market, what have they achieved?

Suren

Twenty-six-year-old Suren Balasanyan is a sportsman. He has a condition caused by early organic disorders of the brain. Mediamax met Suren in the Prkutyun (Armenian for ‘survival’) daycare centre for children and young people with disabilities. He has been attending this centre since the age of 16. He has won medals in numerous international competitions.

Though he doesn’t remember the exact years of his victories, he tells stories of these victories with a smile, naming each country he went to compete. He won a bronze medal in running in the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Greece. In 2013 he won a silver medal in the South Korean winter games, in the 100-metre skiing race.

He was assisted in becoming a member of the Armenian Special Olympics team by Prkutyun NGO.  In contrast to the Paralympic Games, where contestants are people with physical disabilities, the participants of Special Olympics are people with intellectual disabilities from over 100 countries in the world. Suren says that he has been dreaming of becoming a sportsman since childhood.

‘I train intensively for two months before the events. I throw a hammer, jump and run. I got my first medal in Warsaw at the age of 19 in running. I’ve been to Poland, South Korea, Belgium, and the USA. I don’t exactly remember what I won where, but I do recall that I skied for the first time in my life in South Korea. I hadn’t done that before. I was falling often, but the trainer explained the right way and I took 2nd place. I also play football. I learnt it by myself. I fell so many times, that I finally learnt, you know — no pain, no gain.’

The sportsman lives with his aunt in Yerevan. He attended the 12th Special School in Yerevan until the 8th grade. Upon reaching adulthood, he started working in a flower shop.

‘I didn’t know the names of the flowers at all, now I know them. It was close to our house. I would go there from 6 am and would bring water in barrels three times a day. The owner of the shop would cheat and pay only ֏700 (less than $1.5) per day. I was too shy to speak about that. Once he did the job and became very tired, and I said “do you think I’m made of stone?”.’

‘I worked there for 4 years and my aunt was telling me not to be shy and to speak about my salary. Finally, they increased the salary for a bit, but started making trouble, so I got nervous and left the job. I never had a contract; I was paid daily at my job. Once I was a roustabout; I would carry 90 stone blocks to the 2nd floor. I worked there for a week, got my pay, but it was very hard, so I left.’

Now Suren doesn’t have a permanent job. He works for another flower shop without a contract. ‘There is a boy called Garik, he’s a good person. I work for him. I go there at 8 pm to collect the old flowers and freshen the water. I get ֏1,000 ($2). He offered me the job, but even if he didn’t, I would still work for him. If a person treats me well, I do a good job and don’t damage anything’, he says.

Suren Balasanyan dreams of becoming a furniture maker. He studied for two months and took an exam. Now he’s waiting for the call with a job offer. ‘It was difficult to learn to make blueprints, but I managed to learn. I was making mistakes in the beginning. I remember that it was my dream to go to sports competitions and to make furniture. Now I am waiting for the call.’

Vergine

23-year old Vergine Avetsyan, who has mild intellectual disabilities, has been coming to the Prkutyun Centre for seven years. She has learnt needlework and macramé. Demonstrating her work, she shows handbags, wallets, bracelets and wedding souvenirs. She is very fond of her head teacher, so her dream is to become a geography teacher.

‘It has remained just a dream, because I have made no steps towards achieving it… I would love to teach macrame’, she said.

Vergine Avetisyan (Photo from personal archives)

She speaks about her daily life with honesty, mentioning that she could not sell her work on her own.

‘I went to school until the 9th grade and later I decided to attend the Prkutyun centre. My mother advised me not to waste my time coming here. Once, my mother and grandmother came to to see the things I’d made. They were amazed and didn’t believe that I had done it all. Sometimes I sell things at charity exhibitions. Once I even saw a bag I made being sold, and I was very excited. I get half the revenue, which I use to buy clothes and shoes. I imagine how good it would be if everything was sold’, she says.

‘The stereotype that a disabled person is a burden must go’

Arpine Abrahamyan is the head of Prkutyun NGO. She says that Suren and Vergine are among the young people attending their centre who are able to work.

‘Suren worked illegally. When I was trying to negotiate a legal contract for him, employers would say: “If you continue persisting, he might stop working even tomorrow”. He is hoping that a furniture factory would call him. It’s a pity, but people lie when they say they’ll call. I’m sure they won’t, as they have no desire to employ [a person with disabilities]’.

Arpine Abrahamyan (Photo from personal archives)

Suren is not the only person with such problems. Many employers are not informed that a person with disabilities can work properly and be creative.

‘The law stipulates that they can be employed, but it doesn’t specify the problems [of disabled employees]. The employer must have the will and patience to work with them, because they need to be given good, detailed instructions’, Abrahamyan said.

‘Ten years ago I negotiated a job as a shop worker for one of our kids. He would get ֏10,000 per month ($20). The manager said he was ready to simply donate that money, because the effectiveness of the store went down because of the young man. Usually there is no patience or will in families either. For example, teachers here teach them how to tie shoelaces, while at home parents tie the laces themselves and say they have no time [to teach them] and start getting nervous’, she said.

Abrahamyan says that people with intellectual disabilities are more responsible workers. For example, 25–26 of the people they help are able to work. ‘Experience shows that their mind concentrates on one thing, and when they know the task, the outcome is much better. I am sure that if there are special conditions for them and an appropriate salary, they will do a much better job. If they don’t want the worker in the customer service section, then they can work in the kitchen, laundry, or in shops moving boxes and placing fruits. It’s more beneficial for people with intellectual disabilities to have their own social enterprise, where the manager can be a person with physical disabilities. The stereotype that people with disabilities are a burden must go’.

Levon

Levon Karapetyan, who lost his sight at the age of six, started playing piano when he was seven. Due to his exceptional hearing, he can play 400 different musical compositions. He studied in the Yerevan State Conservatory. He says that after he was admitted, his parents had to move to France, so he decided to remain and live alone.

After finishing his MA, he left for Strasbourg to his parents. He says that there is no future for classical musicians in Armenia.

Levon Karapetyan with Serj Tankian (Photo from personal archives)

As a solo pianist he performed at a concert in October with the Armenian State Youth Orchestra, during the 5th Aram Khachatryan International Festival, on the opening night of System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian’s symphony. He stunned the audience with a piano concert by Aram Khachaturyan.

‘After the concert Serj Tankian approached me and said that he was amazed. I was very touched by the attitude of the audience. One year ago I offered Sergey Smbatyan to play the concert, and he agreed. Now I want to learn a new concert. I am looking forward to his reply. I am very excited and it would be great if we collaborated either in France or Armenia’.

Twenty-seven-year-old Levon says people should be courageous and not fear hardship. ‘It’s more difficult for people with disabilities, but everything depends on the person. For example, Sipan Asatryan, my friend, cannot see either, but he works and moves all around the city on his own. There are many visually impaired people who are afraid to walk alone. You know it’s like learning how to read and write. You should try and work hard to do it well. It’s the same for walking with a stick. It’s not easy; you may fall and hit your head against a wall. But you must believe that you can do it’, he says.

He considers his biggest achievement to be a performance of the Edward Grieg piano concerto in Saint Petersburg’s Mariynsky Theatre. He is ready to return home if he finds a well-paying job in Yerevan.

‘Now I am concentrating on studying. I want to win in prestigious competitions; I will get job offers if I do that. I’m thinking of teaching later. If I get a good salary, I would love to live in Armenia. Though there are many perspectives in France, still I want to return to Yerevan. Unfortunately I don’t know many blind people who go to university like me, so they are unable to find a job. Employers avoids taking them or pay little. There is a very talented violinist girl in Armenia who has been advised she would be better to leave the country’, he says.

Andranik

Andranik Kocharyan is a lawyer, a massage therapist, and an IT teacher. He is a classmate of Levon Karapetyan, and according to his friend, Andranik is extremely hardworking.

They both attended School N14 for visually impaired children in Yerevan.

Andranik was born in Ararat province and moved to Yerevan for school.

‘I used to stay at a boarding school. Then I was admitted to the Department of Law, and I would go back and forth between the village and the city. Later I started renting an apartment and lived alone’, he says.

Andranik Kocharyan with his wife and daughter (Photo from personal archives)

He knows the law very well, especially the parts dealing with people with disabilities. He tried to find a job in law, but did not succeed.

‘The government’s decision dictates that 1% or 2% of the workforce in an organisation has to be occupied by people with disabilities. However, they can just employ a person with a heart problem. So the law is not inclusive. The bill on the Protection and Social Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities isn’t perfect either. It can be easily ignored, and the few people [with disabilities] who are employed are an exception’, he says.

Andranik is married and helps his wife take care of their daughter. ‘I do everything: from feeding to changing nappies. I just can’t cook’.

Three years ago he learnt massage therapy and works at a massage centre called  Tesnogh Dzerker (Hands which see). The therapists here are all visually impaired. In parallel, he works as an IT teacher at the Sokrat Shahnazaryan cultural centre for blind people. He teaches people with visual impairments to use computers.

'I have a job contract, but I get a salary lower than the minimum wage. Then the social security is deducted as well as the ֏1,000 ($2) army donation. It’s done so that three people can be employed in one position. The low salary forces one to learn new professions to be able to feed a family. The jobs that I have are thanks to NGOs and grants. I worked as a bottle labeler on a freelance basis. It was a grant project designed especially for the blind. However, those products are now imported with labels on them, so there is no need to do it by hand. If there is anything in this sphere, all of it is due to grants. They are more efficient than the Ministry of Social Protection or other state agencies’.

He does not want to leave Armenia. Sometimes he gets angry because of the social problems here. ‘When I was still not married my parents and brother left  Armenia, while I stayed. I am here because I want my child to grow up here. We do everything to stay. I applied for a position in a delivery department. My wife has two jobs’, he says.

According to Kocharyan, if employers were given any tax incentives, they would be more interested in employing people with disabilities. ‘Employers are not interested; they don’t want to employ people without eyesight, or in a wheelchair, or with only one hand. I’m sure that tax incentives would make many employers more interested in employing the disabled, as tax rates are very high in Armenia. Everyone is trying to reduce it somehow, and this could be a good option. A large social problem will be solved and there will be no need for any state benefits. I get ֏20,000 ($40) as a social benefit, but I won’t need that if I get a normal salary,’ he added.

This article is a translation of a partner post written by Liana Meytarjyan. The original version first appeared in Mediamax on 8 November 2017.

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