Armineh Babikian with fellows of the Interdisciplinary Rehabilitation Fellowship

Birthright Volunteer Trailblazes Occupational Therapy in Armenia’s Villages

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By Jack Baghumian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN — Armenians in the diaspora often come to Armenia and bring an international mindset and experience to the country. In the case of Armineh Babikian, not only did she reform of a branch of healthcare, but she also evolved the world of Occupational Therapy in rural Armenia.

Babikian’s work as an occupational therapist (OT) essentially means that she guides people to learn, or relearn, how to do daily activities that occupy their time; such as “getting out of bed, brushing their teeth, getting dressed” as well as more involved tasks like “going to work, going to the store, and using a computer.” Essentially, an occupational therapist helps people with “physical, cognitive and psychosocial challenges”, be it from birth or from injury, with the ultimate goal being to have independence and quality of life.  Her work helps people achieve the ability they have lost, or have never had, to participate in society.

Babikian first volunteered as an OT in Armenia in 2017 through the Birthright Armenia, an NGO that finds opportunities for diaspora Armenians between ages 21 and 32 in Armenia. During that time, she was able to work with organizations such as Children of Armenia Fund and My Way Educational and Rehabilitation Center. She noted, “inclusive education was just starting to be mandated and implemented. There was a growing demand for resources on inclusive education.”

Armineh Babikian working in the villages of the Aragatsotn region.

Babikian explains how she was the first ever OT to visit several villages of Armenia. “I would go to eight different villages and work with children with developmental disabilities, many of whom had never received any support before,” she said.

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Her work was especially impactful when you consider how several parents of children with disabilities had simply believed that their child would not be able to lead the life of a healthy, fully functioning individual. She changed that with her volunteer work proving to parents that their child can indeed “learn and have friends and be included in different ways.”

Many of the children who she worked with had simply not received the individualized support they needed to thrive.

Older teaching methods were still being used in the newly inclusive schools in the villages, creating yet another barrier to fostering an inclusive environment. Babikian brought her expertise to the forefront of Armenian education by introducing different learning styles as well as classroom modifications to guide teachers in inclusive teaching to better understand how to educate children with varying needs. The progress she made was showcased when upon her return she saw that the children she worked with were social and smiling, and their peers had welcomed them. Still, Babikian would explain later, that “there was a huge demand for more help.”

As a result of her volunteer experience, she published a book titled Occupational Therapy Guidebook to Inclusion [in Armenian]. The purpose of the book was to “give simple explanations about developmental disabilities like autism and down’s syndrome.” The book was also meant to show “ways to develop different skills using simple household items…to help with challenges like coordination or memory.”

Ultimately, Babikian wanted to leave behind a means to continue the work that was being done. With support from a Birthright Armenia Alumni Grant, Children of Armenia Fund, and World Vision Armenia, 1000 copies of her book have been donated to various schools, developmental centers, and rehabilitation clinics throughout Armenia and Artsakh. Thanks to her support and involvement, thousands of children are receiving education, socializing with peers, and being included in their community. The work she has done has fought the stigma of disability one village at a time and has highlighted that every child has the right to an education. Her work has proven that disability is just a different way of being and doing.

As a result of her efforts, thousands of teachers and caregivers have resources to support children with developmental disabilities, rehabilitation providers are receiving high quality continuing education, and people with disabilities in rural Armenia are living in more inclusive communities.

Today Babikian is pursuing her PhD at the University of Toronto, studying rehabilitation science and global health, and doing her research in Armenia. She makes regular trips to Armenia to push forward the progress that has been made in her field.  While she sees “a lot of effort on a national scale” there is still “quite a journey ahead of us.”

 

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