There are more than 600 children with disabilities in Gyumri, Armenia, and most of them are isolated in their homes. We believe that inclusion should start from an early age, when children with and without disabilities attend the same school and play in the same places. In our community, all spaces and structures set up for children’s play are not accessible to children with disabilities.
Thanks to my profession I have the chance to travel around the world and each trip has its positive influence on our future projects. In 2014 I went on a U.S. Department of State "Sports for Success" exchange program hosted by Mobility International USA. On the trip I had an opportunity to visit an accessible playground, Harper's Playground, in Portland, Oregon, USA. After that my dream was to have a similar place in my hometown. But when I talked to the founder's of Harper's Playground I found out that they invested much more money than the grant amount we received. So we developed a wonderful strategy to realize our ambition: mobilizing local authorities, businesses, and community members around the initiative.
Thanks to generous support of UNWG in 2014-2015, “Agate” NGO implemented the “Playground for Everyone” project and built an inclusive playground in Gyumri. Our project was designed to promote social integration of children with different types of disabilities: physical, visual, hearing, and intellectual. The playground is the first of it's type in Gyumri and was made according to Universal Design standards, which is that the playground was made not only for children with disabilities, but it's a space where all the equipment works for everyone.
The playground was placed in Noravan district and it is the only playground in that area. Children were so happy that they couldn’t wait until the reconstruction of the area was fully finished. The playground was built upon a smooth surface and it has ramps, which allow children using mobility devices to access the play towers and slides. There are different types of swings including a swing for children using wheelchairs. Also, there are boards with braille and sign language alphabets.
Thanks to joint efforts, the official opening ceremony of the playground was organized on July 14th, 2015. There were more than 200 people participating in the event including: the Gyumri Mayor, the Deputy Governor of Shirak Region, representatives from the municipality and Shirak Marzpetaran, the Head of the Children’s Rights Protection Department, community members, children with and without disabilities, and mass media.
"It was a great satisfaction to see the joy in the eyes of children with disabilities when they realized that they can have fun on the playground together with their friends without disabilities."
It was obvious that children don’t reject any differences in the abilities of their friends. On the contrary, they tried to support each other and play together. The playground has become one of the most favorite places of the children not only from the district, but from other parts of the city. The playground has brought many benefits such as the parents of the children now have the chance to interact with each other, while their children enjoy playing. Also, the local authorities are planning to build a football playing space next to the playground.
All the projects implemented by Agate NGO are based on the human rights approach: our priority is inclusion instead of integration. Although the grant amount was small, we were eager to provide as many inclusive games as possible at the playground. So our strategy was to involve our community in helping us to realize this wonderful and unique initiative.
We engaged with the three primary groups listed below. In collaboration with all of these stakeholders, I learned how important it was to show that the result will be mutually beneficial and to emphasize that I am ready to provide technical assistance in every stage of the process.
1. The business community
Before submitting the project proposal in order to get funding, I met the Executive Director of Magnon Business Center in Gyumri, which is the only specialized producer of playground and sport equipment in Armenia. I explained to her my dream of an inclusive playground and asked if it is possible to create it. She honestly told me they didn't have experience in making playgrounds accessible, but she was very interested and motivated. I told her that the project would be a pilot for both of us and that it will raise the image of their company because Armenia is currently working toward inclusion. The pilot will inspire others to contract them to create similar playgrounds in other parts of Armenia. I expressed my readiness to assist her in each stage of developing the playground.
After the first meeting, we remained in contact with Magnon and I sent them videos and pictures of inclusive playgrounds all over the world. We discussed how we can adapt these ideas for use in Armenia. Agate NGO staff collaborated with them in confirming the final design of the playground and selecting swings and games. They provided great discounts for us and even donated a game for the playground. It was an inspiring experience for them.
2. Local authorities
First, I met the representative of the Council of Elders in my city, Gyumri. He was very happy we were planning to build an inclusive playground in our district. I told him I could install the playground in the yard of the Agate NGO office, but that I wanted more children to benefit. This meant we needed a larger space. He arranged a meeting with the city Mayor and Deputy Mayor to explain the need for the playground and for the space to host it. Our Mayor was very open to collaboration and he welcomed our initiative. They were especially excited that it would be the first inclusive playground in Armenia and they were proud to assist us.
At first, they wanted us to install the playground in another district of the town, where there was already a playground. I thanked them for the offer, but I asked them to provide a space in our district where there was no playground for the children. I told them about the area I had in mind, which was desolate and in terrible condition and would require much work to improve. I promised them that I would have a meeting with community members to ask if they were ready to work free of charge to improve the area. Since our initiative was of mutual interest, they agreed to my proposal. Gyumri Municipality was excited with the initiative and provided the area for the playground free of charge, invested in reconstructing the site, and donated four benches.
3. Community members
I met an active man in our district and told him about our initiative and asked him to gather 10 additional active members to come to our organization for an evening meeting. I will always remember that evening, which put a smile on my face. One young woman and more than 10 men attended. During our activities I felt that I had earned great trust from the community. I explained that I had been offered another space for the playground in another district, but that I wanted to do something good for our district. They wanted that too as their children would benefit greatly.
Community members were very motivated and many of them worked days and nights without any payment to reconstruct and repair the area for the playground, plant trees and flowers and take care of them, and clean the area every day.
Karine Grigoryan, Founder of Agate Center for Women with Special Needs NGO
Agate Center advocates for the rights of youth with disabilities in Armenia, with the main focus on women, by building their leadership and vocational capacities and empowerment. The organization cooperates with various local, national, and international organizations to reach its strategic goals. I have been invited to the United Nations in New York, USA to give a presentation on the situation of women with disabilities in Armenia. Much of my work involves introducing disability and gender perspective into existing national development programs and agendas. I am a member of the state committee engaged in advocacy for people with disabilities in the Shirak Region. My passion is to create an inclusive environment in Armenia and my dream is to promote the involvement of women with disabilities in the decision-making process by building their political participation skills.