If you judge a book by its cover, you might miss an amazing story…

Oct 20, 2016

Ani Kuroyan

People with disabilities are more likely to experience social isolation, which may have a detrimental impact on their physical, social and mental wellbeing. One of the fields where people with disabilities experience hardship and exclusion is the labor market. Despite the stereotypes in Armenia, most people with disabilities are ready, willing and able to work. Often they can be the largest and most underutilised source of talent in the labor market.

The Ministry of Emergency Situations of Armenia  with  the support of UNDP Armenia launched a programme to employ people with disabilities in 2013. About 30 people with disabilities found various employment opportunities with the emergency services and found their respective place in the labor market, equally with the others.

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The opportunity to work gave these individuals a possibility to escape isolation and a reason to hope for the better – here are their stories:

Sargis works in Regional Crisis Management Center of Gegharkunik region in Armenia. He had a car accident many years ago. Having been the sole breadwinner in his family, Sargis almost completely lost his hope. As a result, he was living in a state of depression and faced severe psychological problems. Sports and physical exercise were the only remedy for him. However, one day the situation completely changed after Sargis saw an announcement from the Ministry of Emergency Situations offering positions for people with disabilities. The opportunity to work, according to Sargis, brought him back to life. Today, he works in a call center, responding to people in emergency situations. At the workplace, he isn’t treated as someone who is different from others. “We work on equal terms with the staff”, says Sargis. He likes his job, and he’s good at it. He mentions that he always tries to be helpful and responsive towards the people in trouble who call the centre. This is because, as he puts it, he’s able to empathise, having once been jobless and disabled he knows exactly how it feels to be in trouble and need help. Sargis is happy that now that he’s the one helping the others in his community.  

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Ani, who has congenial cerebral palsy, says that she could never imagine becoming a “part of society” one day. Ani has experienced a lot of social isolation and loneliness. When she applied and was accepted to the faculty of psychology at Hay Busak University, her mother and brother moved with her to Yerevan to help her travel around the university campus, as at that time very few buildings had any basic accessibility requirements for people with disabilities. After graduating, Ani realised that the only way to cope with her depression was to socialise more and to be treated equally by others. One day she learned about the programme at the Ministry of Emergency Situations that was providing employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Ani applied for it and got a job offer at the national Crisis Management centre. However, she still had a lot of fears about her own ability and was scared at the idea of being an operator in the centre. She was also hesitant about her ability to integrate and socialize as an equal in the established team of professionals. The employees of the centre went to Ani’s house to talk to her about her fears and concerns and eventually were able to persuade her to accept the offer and commence her new role of “rescuer”. Ani later says, “this job was like a miracle for me, it completely changed my life and made me a confident person. This is a beautiful feeling”.

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Sevak, Head of the Information Department at the Ministry of Emergency Situations’ National Center of Technical Safety, found employment after being helped by several non-governmental agencies supporting people with disabilities. They informed him about a new programme at the Ministry of Emergency Situations concerning job positions for people with disabilities. He was hired as manager and immediately began setting out a number of new ideas to support the other staff with disabilities. He initiated the idea of helping the renovation process of the building, making it more comfortable for the people with disabilities. Sevak notes:

When we first started coming to work, nothing was adapted for people with disabilities. The Ministry planned to make all the necessary adaptations to the building. We helped to identify the main problems in the premises. Now, due to the efforts of the Ministry, we work in comfortable conditions accommodated for all peoples with disabilities”.

Now the building also has facilities for resting, sports and even a hairdressers’ salon and the staff feel comfortable with the working environment. “The building is completely adapted for people with disabilities and I am proud and happy to be a part of the establishment of this environment”, says Sevak. Through his work Sevak became a key link between the Ministry and the people with disabilities working there. He serves as an unofficial "ambassador" between the two groups and plays a key role helping to further accommodate the environment.

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When you visit the website of the Ministry of Emergency Situations the first thing that will catch your attention is Christine's picture. Christine works at the National Crisis Management Centre. She had been intensively looking for a job, but few places wanted to hire anyone with disabilities. Nonetheless, she tried not to lose hope. The nature of the job did not matter – she was ready to learn a new profession. “As there was no sign for hope, I was almost about to give up, when I learned about the programme of the Ministry of Emergency Situations”, she states. Christine was invited for an interview and soon she became a member of a very friendly and supportive team at the Centre. Christine was able to move past her depression and she eventually discovered some harmony in her life.

She integrated well into the working environment. Her self-esteem rose and she even decided to sign up to the Pan Armenian Beauty Awards of women with disabilities, which she later won. As Christine mentions, she feels blessed to be part of such a caring staff and can hardly imagine her life without either them or her job.

Being a person with disabilities she knows what it means to help someone else. For her, nothing is more important and precious than a human life: “saving the lives of others is a way to save ourselves”.  

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Evelina, the head of the rescue service in Gegharkunik region, was previously a German language lecturer, and a qualified swimming trainer. After losing her job as a result of restructuring everything changed. While looking for employment, she decided to approach the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Armenia. She performed well during her interview and was given the job. Evelina became an irreplaceable employee and was soon promoted to the position of head of Rescue Service.

While her life now is much easier, along the way Evelina encountered many hardships. She got past this, she tells, with the support of her family:

“Of course, it wasn’t easy in the beginning. I felt a lot of discomfort in general being a female in this position. My employees are men aged 45 and above, and as a matter of principle it was hard for them to approach me as their boss. Often, when your fellow worker is a man, he feels more confident and you are tempted to feel "small". But after a certain period of time the stereotype was broken. The men understood that even being a man they couldn’t manage certain tasks. The major difficulty was to normalize interpersonal relations, particularly to create a friendly atmosphere. I’ve worked hard to find ways to achieve peace at the workplace. After we managed to overcome the barrier between men and women, a reciprocal respect was achieved!”, says Evelina.

Evelina is an excellent example for women who are scared of applying for positions “meant to be for men”.  Her story can motivate thousands of women who lack confidence, are afraid and do not believe in themselves. This is example shows that in many cases the attitude of the society is not always the right attitude – women can take the first step and believe in themselves to be a leader, just as much as any man can.   

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Hayk, a manager in the Ministry of Emergency Situations, confessed to having doubts about Evelina's managerial capacities in the beginning. Seeing her act in a complicated task for the first time, however, he changed his opinion. He is now convinced that she has all the necessary skills for the position.

Hayk started his career by volunteering in different organizations that dealt with rescue activities, disaster risk reduction or management. After he gained enough experience, he was hired by the Ministry of Emergency Situations as the head of a regional Crisis Management Centre. Hayk considers that gender does not matter in his field, nor any other in the labor market. Women and men should be treated equally.

The perception of women in the majority of developing countries (and in some developed societies), including Armenia, is mainly as being responsible only for domestic chores. Men, in contrast, are perceived as having a responsibility to protect and take care of them.

"I do regard women workers with this attitude. But after seeing Evelina in a forest fire emergency response operation, I realised that women can take the lead and give a proper response in extreme situations. I would even say that in case of emergency situations women demonstrate more emotional stability than men", notes Hayk.

At the same time Hayk is very glad to have Sargis and Ani in his team. They worked together to overcome their concerns and made sure that everybody was equally integrated in all processes and decisions. Hayk states that if everybody supported people with disabilities to integrate into the working environment, we would have a much better and healthier society around us.

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