Some of you may have noticed that I was absent from Armenia for a few weeks this summer. During a trip back to the United States to celebrate my grandmother’s birthday, I broke my ankle and had to delay my return. While I was happy to spend more time with my family back in Ohio, I was disappointed to miss all the wonderful activities that were going on in Armenia – including the Embassy’s Independence Day celebration! So as soon as the doctor gave me the green light, I was on a plane to Yerevan.
I am glad to be back, but what an eye-opening experience! While I was largely confined to my mother’s living room, I became acutely aware of just how challenging life can be for those with physical limitations. Simple tasks become uphill battles: answering the door or getting a snack from the kitchen become monumental achievements. To say nothing of leaving the house for a doctor’s appointment: the challenge of negotiating even one stair step or getting in and out of a car. I am lucky. My limitation was temporary, and I had a lot of help from my family. I have deep respect for those who live every day with a disability – whether physical or otherwise – and don’t let it stop them from reaching their goals. I admire their determination, their perseverance, and their remarkable abilities.
I also gained a deeper appreciation for the importance of accessibility laws that make it possible for all people to actively participate in society. Universal accessibility is a broad issue; the benefits of a truly accessible society extend not only to those with permanent disabilities, but also to others who might benefit from a world that is a little easier to navigate: parents pushing babies around town in strollers, pregnant women, the elderly – and people like me who are temporarily incapacitated. The point is that all people should have the opportunity to actively participate in society – and that means access. Access to public transportation, access to schools and universities, access to government programs and services, and access to polling stations on election day!
In the United States, accessibility rights were significantly strengthened when President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, 1990. Broadly speaking, the law prohibits discrimination based on disability. And it applies to employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications, and access to state and local government programs and services. The ADA was a game changer. It established the issue as one of civil rights, reaffirming the bedrock American principle of “liberty and justice for all.”
Of course, change does not happen overnight. Twenty-nine years after the ADA became law, change is still in progress in the United States – some older buildings and public transportation systems still need to be retrofitted to become accessible. But while the fight for equality is not over, we continue to strive for the ideal. And not just in the United States. The State Department’s International Disability Rights team is committed to working with partners all over the world to help level the playing field for people with disabilities and to affirm that disability rights are basic human rights.
Here in Armenia, the legislation is in place. The law prohibits discrimination against persons with any disability in employment, education, and access to health care and other state services, but there is much work to be done to create a truly inclusive society. Implementation has been, and continues to be, the real challenge. We experienced this issue as well in the United States, and even in our embassy buildings around the world. It is a tremendous undertaking to comply with the ADA, as older, non-accessible buildings and infrastructures require significant renovations. It can take years – decades, even – to complete some of these changes.
Fortunately, there are many Armenians who are fighting for just that – a society where everyone, regardless of their abilities, has equal access and opportunity. During a recent trip to Gyumri I was heartened to meet a number of young people who are actively working to improve the lives of those with disabilities – like Gayane Grigoryan who works with the Agate Rights Defense Center for Women with Disabilities NGO, and Suren Avdalyan, the vice-director of the Easy Life NGO, whose mission is to repair the homes of children with disabilities. I was especially proud to learn that these two remarkable individuals are also alumni of U.S. exchange programs!
Also while in Gyumri I had the pleasure to visit the Emili Aregak bakery – the first inclusive bakery and coffee shop in Gyumri – a business that “walks the walk” by employing people with disabilities, recognizing their ability to help business thrive. The Embassy is also proud to fund a number of small grants projects that increase the visibility of people with disabilities and work towards an ever more inclusive society.
I know there are many more examples of individuals across Armenia working to improve accessibility in their communities – I applaud you for your efforts and encourage you to keep striving for equality for all.