Photos Natela Grigalashvili for Shuki Movida
Introduction Guy Edmunds
In theory, it shouldn’t be a problem. Georgia has signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), and includes equality for people with disabilities in the 2014 Anti-Discrimination Law.
But while the letter of the law says one thing, daily life says another: life for people with disabilities in Georgia is still one of marginalization. In part, it is a question of getting around: the physical environment in Georgia’s towns and cities is short on such things as ramps, elevators, and voice prompts at street crossings, which would help people on a wheelchair to get around.
Work is an essential part of life as an independent adult. Yet according to a report from the Institute for the Development of Freedom of Information, people with disabilities in Europe are seven times more likely to be employed than in Georgia.
The numbers are disputed. For example, in March 2015, the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Affairs reported that 118,551 people - or 3% of the population - received some form of social assistance for disabilities. Yet with the World Health Organisation calculating a global disability prevalence rate of around 10%, unofficial estimates of the number of people with disabilities in Georgia are much higher.
The biggest problem, though, lies in people’s attitudes. Over 40 percent of the population hold negative opinions towards children with physical and mental disabilities, according to a 2017 study by UNICEF. Not only are such children seen as abnormal, but their disabilities are also perceived as a threat – or even contagious. As a result, some parents do not want their own children mixing with them. They are also seen as dependent, limiting their sense of their own potential. And so a vicious circle is perpetuated, with marginalized children growing up to become marginalized adults.
Such attitudes are partly a legacy of communism. As the academic Sarah Phillips has pointed out, during Soviet times, people with disabilities were deliberately hidden away in institutions.
But while the historical record has been unkind, there are signs of progress, as human rights groups and NGOs working with people with disabilities pressure the government to turn its commitments into reality, and challenge Georgian society to see the people first, not their disability.