Julia Melqonyan was born two months premature, with cerebral palsy affecting her right hand, meaning she has difficulties in using it for minor movements. Doctors told her mother Anahit, 32, that Julia’s chances of survival were slim. After spending two weeks in hospital, Julia won her fight for survival, however her battle to participate and be fully included in her community had only just begun.
Kept at home for more than 12 years because of her impairment, Julia was not taken to nursery, never went to meet her relatives, had few friends, and crucially wasn’t taken to school – all for the simple reason that her parents feared their daughter would be laughed at and discriminated against. So instead Julia stayed at home, running the house alongside her mother. Ahahit says, “There were times that I asked her if she wanted to go to school and she just refused. What could I do?”
In early 2005, Julia was included in World Vision Armenia’s Children in Especially Difficult Circumstances (CEDC) programme. “When I first met Julia, I couldn’t understand why her parents had feared to take her to school; her impairment was unnoticeable, so no one could ever guess she had one,” says Ervandanush Sahakyan, a social worker with World Vision’s Gyumri project.
“Our primary concern was to get Julia into school as soon as possible. The challenge was she was now twelve, and Armenian children start school at the age of six. Julia was completely illiterate,” says project Child Protection Programme coordinator, Karine Kurghinyan.
A decision was made to begin work with Julia, teaching her the Armenian alphabet and the basics of algebra. But it didn’t stop there, as teachers needed training as well. Although willing to have disabled children in the classroom, few were equipped to meet their particular needs.
12 years of isolation had affected Julia psychologically. It has taken the Gyumri project team almost two years of work not only with Julia, but also with her parents, because they still feared school wasn’t the right place for Julia.
Attending the local community centre helped Julia a great deal; she learned to communicate with other children, discovering a wider world for herself, and learned to read and write. But most importantly, she gradually reached a point where she wasn’t afraid of school any more.
14-year-old Julia attended school for the first time in her life on November 10th, 2006.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will provide a recognised international standard for the rights and freedoms of disabled people around the world. It will also mean that governments will have to challenge the discriminating attitudes and barriers against disabled people in all areas of society. This means stories like Julia’s should become fewer and fewer in the coming years, as organisations like World Vision hold governments to account in ensuring that this treaty makes a real and practical difference to disabled people’s lives. Currently only 2% of disabled children in the developing world go to school. There are countless numbers of parents like Anahit, who fear the social stigma of having a disabled child, even if their impairment is an invisible one like Julia’s, and choose isolation over education.