Disability Inclusion in Youth Exchange

Karine and Aram meeting in Oregon
Armenian Disability Rights Leader Reflects on the Importance of Exchange Programs

When she isn’t traveling the world, Karine Grigoryan is a tireless advocate for the inclusion of students with disabilities in youth exchange programs in her home country of Armenia.

As a disability rights activist, Karine first experienced the impact of international exchange as a participant on MIUSA’s Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability (WILD) program. Several years later, she returned to the United States as the leader of a MIUSA delegation of professionals with and without disabilities committed to expanding access to sports for youth with disabilities.

“Youth with disabilities should have access to every exchange program. Each experience makes them stronger and develops their leadership capacity. They become more self-confident and independent and they become change makers in their communities.”

This was the message she shared with Aram, the only high school student with a disability from Armenia selected that year to live and study in the United States on the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program. The two met near Aram’s host community of Harrisburg, Oregon.

“Talking with Aram, I couldn’t hide my smile, as I remembered myself eight years ago when I came to the U.S. It changed me so much. Talking to Aram, I realized how confident and motivated he was. I’m proud to have him as a youth representative of the disability community in Armenia.”

Aram revealed his confidence as he expressed, “People with disabilities have unique personalities and each one is able to do more as long as they believe in themselves.”

In order for high school students in Armenia to be competitive for programs such as FLEX, many must take supplemental English language classes or work with a private tutor. Due to the high cost and lack of accessible transportation, that’s not always possible for students with disabilities.

So, the organization founded by Karine, the Agate Center, is offering English language courses for students with disabilities and covering the cost of transportation to and from the Center.

Since family concerns can be a significant barrier, Karine is also meeting with parents of students with disabilities to share her and Aram’s experiences and the importance of inclusion in exchange programs.

Her involvement with youth with disabilities doesn’t end there.

“Adults with disabilities should be role models for youth with disabilities, encourage and empower them, provide counseling, and share experiences. As our path is sometimes more complicated, we need to share advice on what worked and what didn’t work in certain situations so that students feel confident in their abilities and supported in taking risks...Adults can also learn from the new ideas of their mentees.”