After the revolution, Armenia’s people with disabilities seek to make their mark

In an early test, activists occupied the offices of the country's Association for the Blind, demanding reform of the organization.

Peter Liakhov Oct 2, 2018 boy with cerebral palsy in Armenia A boy with cerebral palsy relies on a rickety metal walker to navigate Yerevan. (David Trilling)

Like many post-Soviet cities, Yerevan is notoriously inaccessible. Sidewalks often lack ramps, or if they are available they are often too steep to safely use. Accessible buses are few and far between (26 out of roughly 2,000 that operate in the city), and metro riders have to descend several flights of stairs to reach the trains. In rural areas, the situation is even more dire.

As in so many spheres of life in Armenia, however, following the “Velvet Revolution” that swept a new government into power this spring, there is hope for all this to change. Zaruhi Batoyan, a disabled rights activist, was a prominent presence during the protests that toppled the former administration, giving regular speeches to crowds that at times topped 100,000. That she addressed disabled rights in such a large forum – and did so in a wheelchair – was unprecedented.

Now Batoyan is in the new government, led by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, as a deputy minister for labor and social affairs. From her new, official perch she says she is trying to bring about concrete benefits for the country's people with disabilities. “Before we had a reality where authorities talked about equal opportunities and inclusion, but it was just words. Even when the ideas were good, in implementation there were problems,” she told Eurasianet.

People with disabilities in Armenia suffer substantial economic disadvantages. Among the roughly 186,000 Armenians with disabilities, the unemployment rate is 92 percent, compared to 18 percent among the general population. Only 19 percent of those of secondary-school age are enrolled, disability payments are meager (roughly $35-45 a month) and state-provided medical care does not cover all required treatments.

These are not the highest items on the agenda of the new government, which is primarily focused on an aggressive campaign against corruption and abuse of power by the former regime, as well as on preparing for upcoming parliamentary elections. Disability rights are a secondary concern at best. Thus far the government's promises to implement change are vague.

But the revolutionary impulse is inspiring some of Armenia's disabled-rights activists to try to accelerate the pace of change.

On August 6, about two dozen members of the Armenian Association of the Blind began an occupation of the association's main office. Sitting in the hallway, the activists chanted slogans, blew horns and whistles, banged pots, blocked doors, and built the occasional furniture barricade.

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The activists were calling attention to claims that the leadership of the organization (the single largest body for visually impaired people in Armenia, and the successor to the Soviet-era Armenia-wide Association of the Blind) was guilty of corruption, misappropriation of funds, ties to the formerly ruling Republican Party of Armenia, and general ineptitude in promoting the interests of Armenia’s visually impaired. They demanded the resignation of the association's president and new, transparent elections for both the presidency and the executive body.

Sipan Asatryan, a 28-year-old visually impaired activist and one of the key organizers of the occupation said the protest was “inspired” by the Velvet Revolution. “The people in charge of the association are elderly. They look only to the Soviet past, not to the future,” he said. He said the association's leaders, like Armenian society more broadly, didn't appreciate what people with disabilities could do. “They don’t imagine that blind people can work with computers. They don’t imagine that blind people can move independently.”

The occupation lasted 31 days, ending on September 12 when the association's president resigned. But protesters considered it only a partial victory, as their other demands were not met. Instead of holding open elections, the association's executive body appointed a new president and refused to move forward the 2019 date set for a proper vote.

Asatryan said that the new president, Raffi Hachatryan, promised that the new elections would be “fair and transparent.” Asatryan, though, said that for him and his fellow activists those promises are “hard to believe.” They have submitted a complaint to the State Revenue Commission to investigate allegations of misuse of funds.

Hachatryan said that he is a supporter of the Velvet Revolution: “The revolution gave people a chance to use free speech. Through protest they could voice their dissatisfaction.” But he said the activists who occupied the association went too far. “Their demands […] were unreasonable. They refused to compromise.”

He said the protestors are not representative of the roughly 1,800 members of the organization and accused organizers of using the occupation to further their own political careers. Indeed, Asatryan announced during the occupation that he was running in the upcoming Yerevan municipal election on Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s “My Step” slate. And he did so on the recommendation of his former boss at the nongovernmental organization Disability Info, Batoyan. Following the landslide victory of the My Step slate on September 23, Asatryan will join the new city council.

Nevertheless, Hachatryan allowed that the protesters' demands had some merit. He acknowledged that some properties belonging to the association had been rented out at favorable terms to family and friends of executive body members, but that this was “rare” and contributed to the finances of the organization. As to the government investigation, he said, “time will tell.” He said the association is now “striving to improve itself” and that it is “open” to the suggestions and initiatives put forward by the protestors.

In the Yerevan municipal elections, the “My Step” slate's platform included reforms aimed at people with disabilities, including a new fleet of accessible buses as well as city-wide accessibility renovations. With the slate’s strong municipal council majority, activists will be looking closely at whether the new administration keeps its promises.

Batoyan said that under the previous administration, what little was done for people with disabilities was implemented piecemeal, usually with little input from Armenians with disabilities themselves.

She noted that in 2010 Armenia ratified the UN’s International Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, but failed to implement any of the legislative changes that envisaged, which would have addressed issues like accessibility to buildings and public transportation and would have brought Armenian legislation in line with international standards.

Batoyan said that she intends to push for concrete legislative changes, but also ensure that the design and development of new projects and initiatives involves local activists and NGOs from the beginning. “We will not repeat the mistakes” of the previous administration, she said.

Peter Liakhov is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan.