Armenia is about to introduce major changes to the way disabled benefits are assessed, so that people will be categorised according to their ability to work.
Experts point to a shortage of workplaces with proper accessibility in Armenia, and warn that the new classification system might be just as open to corrupt practices as the current one.
Until now, the health authorities have put disabled people in one of three categories, ranked by severity of impairment. Category one is the most serious, category three the least; and this determines the level of disability benefits that the state pays out to each.
The employment register currently shows 170,000 registered disabled people in Armenia, of whom 90,000 are considered to be able to work to some extent.
The authorities plan to replace the current system with one based on models used in Lithuania and the Czech Republic. It will take two years to launch, during which time the method for assessing disability will be refined.
Jemma Baghdasaryan, deputy minister for labour and welfare, explained that anyone classed as able to work would be provided with a job, and would then lose disability benefits.
“People will be deemed to be disabled if they have lost a certain percentage of their ability to work,” she explained. “For children, the criteria applied will be ‘activeness’ and ‘engagement’.”
Marianna Chalikyan, spokeswoman for the disabled rights group Unison, doubts that the conditions exist to make the change so quickly.
“Under the new system, they will assess individuals’ state of health and circumstances, and then assign them a level of employability. [Most workplaces] are totally unprepared for this,” she said. “If you look at the state of the country as a whole, it is not ready to provide work, so an employer who wants to take on a disabled person will have problems.”
Anna Khachatryan, a lawyer with Unison, expressed concern at the way the criteria had been drawn up for the new classifications. She said concepts like “ability to move around” and “ability to work” were defined in very broad terms, so someone might be assessed as fit for work if even they had only limited mobility.
The current system, where people come before a medical commission to be placed in one of the three categories, is widely accepted as being open to abuse.
Last September, the government sacked the head of the labour ministry’s medical examinations agency after hearing the results of an investigation which found that 65,000 people paid bribes every year to be classified as disabled. Investigators found that the bribes ranged from 15,000 to 150,000 drams, or 37 to 370 US dollars.
Karen Hovhannisyan notes that the reverse is common, too – people who are undeniably disabled but find their status is downgraded or annulled altogether when they appear before a medical commission.
Marat Atovmyan, a lawyer who heads the Anti-Corruption Centre in Yerevan, cited the high-profile case of Armenui Arakelyan, a disabled woman called before an army conscription commission in 2011 after her son asked to defer his military service on the grounds that he was a carer.
At the hearing, three doctors downgraded Arakelyan’s disability category, and that of her husband as well, so that their son could no longer claim the right to a deferment. The Anti-Corruption Centre stepped in and helped her reclaim her original disability status.
Atovmyan and others argue that the new system of categorisation is liable to be just as arbitrary.
“The structure needs to be made more transparent so as to reduce the risk of corruption,” he said. “Professional doctors often can’t tell from a diagnosis which category a patient should be assigned to. It’s natural that lawyers and judges find it hard to discern what is illegal, since there are no clear categories.”
Under the new system, Hovhannisyan predicts, “the number of appeals will rise”.
Gayane Mirzoyan is a freelance reporter and a media expert with the Journalists for the Future group in Armenia.