Little Sun challenges disability stereotypes in Armenia

Disabled children and their families often face stigma, exclusion and poverty in Armenia. John Smith Fellow Tigranuhi Akopyan is changing attitudes and creating a workplace where disabled young people can shine.

Tigranuhi is director of the Emili Aregak Center, a daycare centre for children with disabilities in the town of Gyumri and Aregak Bakery and Café, which provides job opportunities for disabled young people. Both are run by the Caritas Aregak Foundation.

“Aregak means ‘little sun,’” explains Tigranuhi. “Our mission is to support disabled children to integrate into society, while providing social services and rehabilitation services like physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy.”

Aregak’s philosophy is based on the social approach to disability. This argues that society, not the disabled person, needs to change by removing barriers – both physical and attitudinal – which stop disabled people from participating.

In Armenia, where stigma towards disabled people is high, this starts in the family. “In traditional families, the mother is often labelled or blamed for her child’s disability,” says Tigranuhi. “So, when a child comes to our centre, we work closely with their family and support them to accept their child.”

Empowering mothers

The responsibility for raising a disabled child usually falls to the mother. Many fathers are labour migrants in Russia and are away most of the year. In some cases, the father has left altogether, leaving the family in poverty.

“Our focus is on empowering women,” Tigranuhi says. “We have a peer support group to offer psychological and social support to the mothers. In this way, they share their challenges and burdens.

“Whenever there are new projects, we involve the mothers. We also give them priority for work opportunities. In our rehabilitation centre, we have a big kitchen where we provide lunch and breakfast. The women working in the kitchen are the mothers of the children who come to the centre.”

Opportunities after school

Armenia has adopted a progressive law on education, which states that all disabled children must receive their education in public schools.

Tigranuhi says: “It’s the right way, but in a poor country like Armenia, which is facing so many hardships, it’s really difficult.” This is because schools lack the resources they need to support disabled children, leading to tensions among teachers and parents.

And, as Tigranuhi argues, it’s not all about structural changes. “We have this great law, but it cannot force people to think in a different way,” she says. “As an organisation, we must work on attitudinal change.”

Linked to this, is a lack of job opportunities for disabled young people, often due to misconceptions about their abilities. “We talk mostly about inclusive education, but there’s something missing,” she says. “What about after school? What is the future for them?

Michael’s story

To illustrate this point, Tigranuhi shares the experiences of a young man called Michael, who has Down syndrome. “After graduating from our centre in 2016, Michael was accepted by a vocational college, where he took a one-year cooking course,” she says. “Then it was time for him to do an internship.

“Michael, his mother and our psychologist would walk into different restaurants ask them to take him as an intern. All of them rejected him. They’d say, ‘Oh no. He has Down syndrome. How could he work with us?’”

To overcome this barrier, Michael did his internship in the kitchen at Emili Aregak Center. His experience inspired Tigranuhi and her team to develop the Aregak Bakery and Café, with help from a grant from the EU. She explains: “Michael – and his friends – were the reason. They have some abilities. There are things they can do and should be able to do them.”

A famous café

The café, which opened in 2018, is in the city centre, where it attracts passers-by. The young people serve customers, make coffee, help in the kitchen and clean. Tigranuhi says: “We wanted to create a workplace where they would earn some money, show their abilities and eventually change the mindset of customers and society. And it’s exceeded our expectations – it’s become a famous café.”

“We’ve concentrated on the quality of the coffee, the pastries, the bread, so that people are not doing us a favour in coming to our café. They come as customers, to a usual business place that has good coffee, good pastries, typical to our city, and enjoy it.”

She adds: “We want to be a model for other businesses in Armenia. Not only cafes, but also hotels. We’ve already seen cases where some hotels are employing young people with disabilities. We’ve spread this idea that disabled people are not just people who receive support from the government. They’re taxpayers who work and support their families.”

Impact that snowballs

Tigranuhi came to the UK for her John Smith Trust fellowship in 2017, while she was in the process of setting up the café. At this time, she also wanted to work at a policy level to drive change. Her action plan was to develop a policy framework to better support and empower people with disabilities.

The organisations she visited during her fellowship proved instrumental in inspiring and informing her approach. “It was a life changing experience,” she says. “The experiences have stayed in my mind and things that inspired me during that time still have an impact now. Like a snowball, the impact continues growing.

“A John Smith Fellowship is about inspirational people. It’s about human-to-human connection and how you learn from each other.”

Setting up a parents’ council

Among the organisations Tigranuhi visited were Pathways 4 All in Newcastle and Full of Life in Kensington and Chelsea. Both organisations are led by parents and provide support for disabled children and their families.

At Pathways 4 All, Tigranuhi met Janine Finnie and her son Thomas who has Down syndrome. It really opened her eyes about what parents can do. Inspired by this experience, when she returned to Armenia, she set up a parents’ council at the Emili Aregak Centre.

“Parents are the voices of their children,” she says. “They’re the part of the policy making process as much as we are. At the moment, we are providing input from the parents’ point of view for legislation on personal support for disabled people. We are like the engine. But the parents are the ones who say what the real needs are.”

Gardening project takes root

While in the UK Tigranuhi also visited a farm run by young people with learning disabilities. “That was eye-opening for me. It was something I hadn’t seen in my life. I remember looking at how they were working, how they divide up labour, how it was organised.”

She kept it in mind and talked to her staff about how a project of this kind could work in Armenia. In 2022, she applied for a grant from the Austrian Development Agency, to build a greenhouse where young people can learn gardening skills. A further grant from the Japanese Embassy in Armenia, in March 2024, will fund another building (attached to the greenhouse) where they will receive training in theoretical aspects of agriculture.

“It’s a big project with the mission of supporting young people, and also women, to be involved in agriculture,” Tigranuhi says. “We are trying to be as inclusive as possible, accepting disabled people and others who are vulnerable, such as displaced people. After the training, they will be employed here and hopefully it will be a successful enterprise like Aregak Bakery and Café.”