Special for the Armenian Weekly
Armenia has been in the social media spotlight recently. According to a New Zealand man who is the father of a newborn with Down’s syndrome, his Armenian wife opted for divorce rather than to keep the child. It’s the stuff of scathing headlines and self-righteous online commentary.
I hesitate to add to the dialogue about this. I hesitate because I don’t typically comment on the kinds of headlines that spread like wildfire on social media. Maybe I should, but I don’t.
That said, now that this story is being discussed so widely, it creates an opportunity to talk about some difficult issues. To be of any value, though, it can’t be a reductionist “she’s a villain and he’s a hero” conversation. The woman is a product of her social environment. Most of us are. And sometimes that means we do things that contradict our stated values.
As anyone who’s read my other columns knows, I have great affection for Armenians, their culture, language, food, land, and hospitality. I’ve been warmly welcomed into more Armenians’ lives than I can possibly count.
This story, though, did not surprise me. The only thing that surprised me was that others were shocked.
These kinds of things happen all the time. As just one example, many children are given up for adoption around the world on the basis of a cleft lip or palate, a comparatively minor anomaly.
People are quick to criticize the above-mentioned woman, Armenians by extension, and all the others around the world who make this intensely emotional decision to send a child with a disability to an orphanage, rather than raise them. The people who make these harsh statements are, as an Armenian might say, “speaking from a warm place.” They speak without understanding the context.
The legacy of the Soviet Union is never far away in conversations about the social and political situation in Armenia and other former Soviet republics. For decades it was standard—mandatory, even—to institutionalize children who were considered defective. There was a stated intent to provide appropriate care, while perhaps the true intent was to hide those considered different and wrong. If you isolate the problem, you can make it disappear.
We can talk about the value of integrating people with disabilities into Armenian society without blaming and shaming someone who likely felt she wouldn’t have the skills or support to raise a child with special needs.
It’s unusual to see anyone with a visible physical or developmental disability in Armenia, even today, but things are slowly changing. It was in the last 15 years that the sidewalks in central Yerevan were made wheelchair friendly. An increasing number of organizations are serving the needs of those with disabilities so they can thrive. Some years ago, I went skiing at Tsakhkadzor and was trembling at the top of the mountain when a group of Armenian amputee alpine skiers in uniforms whizzed by me.
Yet, many people—in Armenia and everywhere else around the world—still have rigid definitions of what is good and normal.
While in Armenia a few months ago, I saw a long-time friend trying to “correct” his young son’s left-handedness. Unable to stay quiet, I told him that was a “shat hetamnats mtatselakerp” (very outdated mentality). His wife readily agreed, and then I turned to the boy and said that the president of the United States is left-handed. No matter the kid’s political persuasion, that’s got to mean something.
I’ve mentioned in previous writings the notion of shame. Amot. Growing up, I had never thought about the word shame. Once I arrived in Armenia at age 21, I heard the word used all the time. Shame, I soon learned, is supposed to keep people in line, whether they like it or not. It demands that people make certain decisions in life, and holds them accountable if they don’t.
As a teenager, I babysat for a kid with Down’s syndrome and his two siblings. We made cakes and watched movies and stayed up past their bedtimes. One of the last times I saw that kid was at a street dance in my hometown in North Dakota. He’s a grown man who holds two jobs now, and he spun me around on the dance floor.
The world is full of complexes. It is not easy to live within a family, a community, a society, and an increasingly connected world. We can talk about the value of integrating people with disabilities into Armenian society without blaming and shaming someone who likely felt she wouldn’t have the skills or support to raise a child with special needs. And, in many ways, her assumptions were probably accurate.
Let’s focus on education before castigation. To do otherwise would be to miss an opportunity to create a kinder world. And that would be a real shame.