Hit the road Jack, don’t you come back no more no more…” I mumbled to myself, as I boarded a bus in Tbilisi heading to Chitakhevi, a village in the southern region of Samtskhe-Javakheti. Not sure how about Jack, or not coming back, but if I were in a wheelchair - like Aleko Gitolendia who is the reason why I am going to Chitakhevi - I would not go much further than the station entrance.
If wheelchair-bound, traveling in Georgia with public transport is a contradiction in terms - mobility is a logistic nightmare.
Official data on differently-abled persons in Georgia reveals an alarming situation. To start with, detailed figures are scarce. The Ministry of Health, Labour and Social affairs sets at 118,651 the number of persons with disability (PwD) on the government’s social assistance. Based on a detailed medical assessment, beneficiaries receive a support package which includes a cash benefit of GEL 100 - 160 (USD 39 - 62) depending on the disability. However economic and social reasons mean that PwDs slip through the net of the system - pensions for elderly people are higher than the one for disabled persons, so some families opt to hold on and apply for the former in later years. In addition, stigma around disabilities remains high and families withhold registering for fear of discrimination.
By the end of 2016, 914 people will have received free wheelchairs through the state-funded social program. In the scheme, the Ministry joined forces with the Coalition for Independent Living, a Tbilisi-based assistance and advocacy group working with and for PwDs, and the Georgian Wheelchair factory which was set up in 2010 with financial support from the US development agency (USAID).
Yet, no statistics are available on how many people in Georgia are wheelchair-bound.
Private cars remain the easiest means of transportation for people on wheelchairs - easy if a family member or acquaintance owns one. While specifically-designed driving gear allow people of physical limitations to drive, access to these devices is limited as they are costly and for people relying on social assistance totally are out of reach.
Non-governmental organizations help transport provided on ad-hoc basis that cannot fill the service void for people with disabilities.
“There’s a big gap between society and PwDs, local communities often misunderstand their needs or underestimate their abilities,” notes Tamar Maghlakelidze at the Coalition for Independent Living. “While some are well-adjusted for independent living, many feel socially insecure and are financially not self-sufficient. Whenever we plan any activity, we have to consider expenses for their transportation as [mobility] is always a problem.”
Georgia has signed most of the international conventions to protect the rights of people with disabilities, like the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009, and in 2014 the Government has approved the national strategy on protecting equal rights for PwDs. Day-to-day life remains hard though.
In July 2016 Tbilisi’s Transport Municipal Department announced the introduction of 143 buses with facilitated access for wheelchairs in the public transport network, starting with 21, but a detailed timeline is not available. In its 2015 report, the Public Defender’s office stated that the “Government doesn’t apply comprehensive approach to address and solve this complex issue – adjust existing metro stations for people with disabilities.”
There are 12 interregional bus stations in the capital - none of them features wheelchair-friendly facilities nor offers equipped vehicles. And if Tbilisi is difficult, outside the situation is in dire straits. Most municipalities are cash-stripped - purchasing vehicles and adapting road infrastructure are daily challenges and, in many cases, private companies own the public transport facilities.
For Revaz Revazisvhili action is needed to support people on wheelchairs.
“Of the skilled paralympic athletes in the team, 34 of them are on wheelchairs and many live in the regions,” explains the secretary general of Georgian National Paralympic Committee. “But they have to train in Tbilisi and we have no means to ensure their mobility as regional public transport is not adjusted, and we lack funds to provide individual transportation for everyone.”
My host in Chitakhevi, Aleko Gitolendia, confronts this challenges on a daily basis. And more. The 31 year old is an army officer, a father, and an avid traveler. Experiencing wars all the way from his native Abkhazia to Iraq, where he lost both legs and damaged his left hand, he has been on both sides of the physical mobility spectrum. Yet, he is a lucky one as he retained his job in the army - he is now an administrative officer at the military base in Gori, in central Georgia.
Social stereotypes add pressure to an already grim picture. Surveys show that people see people with disabilities as vulnerable and weak, pitiful and helpless, burdens on the society and incapable of full participation in everyday life. It is a vicious circle as the less society engages with people with disabilities, the less they can interact with the society they live in.
Take architectural barriers and the right to vote. According to the Georgian Central Election Commission (CESKO) in 2014 only 4,883 PwDs managed to vote. Regardless of pre-election preparatory works and building special ramps, most polling stations were not equipped to host voters on wheelchairs.
Standing on a secondary road, somewhere on the outskirts of Chitakhevi, Aleko Gitolendia jokes.
“Authorities and private owners try to build some ramps, but often they are too steep, therefore useless. They confuse us with angles.”