Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Life of Challenges

An organization with which I work is looking into a project that would make their building accessible to people with physical disabilities, making me reflect again on how difficult it is for the disabled in Armenia.

Walking in Gyumri is enough of a challenge without contending with a disability.  Many streets are unpaved. Sidewalks don’t exist for long stretches or may be blocked by rubble from damaged buildings.  Where there are clear sidewalks, they can be at different heights in front of different buildings necessitating steps up or down as you walk along.  Some curbs that do exist are more than a foot above the street.  During the winter, you have to be particularly careful since there is no standard for whether to clear the sidewalk in front of your home or business so it is often left until it melts (particularly since there are so many vacant buildings).  This winter, snow has been on the ground since November, has solidified to ice in many places and will remain on the ground until at least April.  A total of about a foot arrived this week after four solid days of snowfall.  

All over Armenia, cars seem to have right of way no matter what.  Whether or not this is codified by law I don’t know but since everyone yields the right of way it may as well be.  There are intersections with walk signals but where a street feeding into the intersection retains a green light for cars to pass.  Cars regularly pass one another on blind hills and you can be trapped in a crosswalk with a car speeding toward you.  I have seen cars drive on sidewalks or streets that are nominally for pedestrians only, with drivers expecting people to get out of their way. 

Transportation options are virtually non-existent for the disabled.  Getting on and off marshutnis and buses usually requires you to climb over or past other passengers and the average seat (if you can get one) is not wide enough for the average person.  Subway stations in Yerevan have steep steps into the stations and escalators down to the platforms.  The city of Yerevan recently purchased a large number of buses with the intent of phasing out marshutnis for intra-city transport – but none of them are handicap accessible. Oops.

I am not aware of any elevators in Gyumri.  During the earthquake, virtually all tall buildings collapsed and I have seen only one or two that are higher than five stories.  Elevators I have been in while in Yerevan are barely wider than I am.  There are ramps up to certain areas and buildings (into some subway stations, up to church entrances) but they are usually too steep to be safely used with a wheelchair and there is no access from the street to the beginning of the ramp anyway.  Once inside a building, doorways tend to be narrow, are inconsistent as to whether they open in or out, and most that I have seen have a lip that you need to step over to cross the threshold.
There was a protest recently (see article) that highlighted that access for the disabled throughout Yerevan was very poor.  As I have written previously, Yerevan is far more developed than the rest of the country so what little is there is far more than in the outer regions of the country.  Gyumri's recently opened city hall has no ramps for access to the building.

A lot of this is because Armenians seem to prefer not to think about the disabled in the population.  By the official count, about 6% of the population is disabled but I can count on one hand how many physically disabled people I have seen in Gyumri. One man I do see often is a double amputee.  He sits in a wheelchair in his garage and usually one of the neighboring men is playing Nardi (similar to backgammon) with him.  The rutted dirt road that runs past his house leads to a poorly paved cobblestone street.  The only vehicles I see near his house are small Lada sedans and his house is run down, making it unlikely that his family owns a vehicle he could ride in comfortably.  It makes me wonder when he last left his house. 

Although Armenia no longer has “orphanages”, there are homes for children with no parents or whom the parents cannot take care of.  Some of those children are placed there because of the stigma associated with disabilities while others are simply kept indoors and out of sight.  Shame can overwhelm the need for good parenting.  There are organizations that deal specifically with these children (such as Centaur, a hippotherapy center) but it is in danger of closing for lack of funding (see article here).

Similar to transportation issues, the problem of unemployment is compounded by a disability (see article – that happens to have the same photo as the one linked above…).  Some of the larger corporations here have programs aimed at non-discrimination, but with unemployment estimated as high at 70% in some areas, it seems unlikely to me that any such program with respect to small businesses would succeed.

This all makes the desire to make the services offered in my office even more admirable.  The problem is that when it was built out to be an office space about seven years ago, this was not taken into consideration.  The cost to renovate it again, however, would be more than a new building would likely be.   

And those who need it would have no way to get there in the first place…..