Text by Lika Antadze
Photos by Nino-Ana Samkharadze
Public School #202 is an elegant, red-brick building just outside Tbilisi’s city center with an exquisitely carved, wooden entranceway and, outside, two qvevris, a waving Georgian flag and a manicured garden. Yet none of its 45 pupils can see this subtle beauty. The edifice houses Georgia’s only school for blind and visually impaired students.
Most Georgians’ knowledge of a blind person is limited to Khatia, the 16-year-old girl at the center of popular writer Nodar Dumbadze’s 1962 novel “I See The Sun.” Khatia is blind, but her love for Soso enables her to see through the darkness.
Khatia’s popularity, however, does not seem to have had any impact on society’s perceptions of the blind and visually impaired. As in Soviet times, they are often seen as a separate people.
“When we talk about disabilities, we tend to forget blind and visually impaired people as if they don’t exist,” laments Esma Gumberidze, a Tbilisi-based advocate for rights for the disabled. “For generations, they lived in closed communities. Now, they just stay at home.”
Slowly, some are fighting back. Gumberidze, a former pupil at School #202, was granted a scholarship to study in the United States and now studies law at Tbilisi State University.
At #202, pupils are taught to read and write in braille, the writing system of raised dots for the blind and visually impaired, as well as how to navigate spaces independently, identify objects by touch, use computers with a voice synthesizer, and cook without assistance.
“This school is not just a place where you get an education. Here, I learned how to live,” recalls 63-year-old Tamila Abashia, describing how she learned to wash dishes or make her bed by herself. Abashia, a former student, has been teaching Georgian language and literature in the school for almost 30 years after receiving a master’s degree in Georgian philology at Tbilisi State University.
Georgia’s 15 specialized public schools, addressing disabilities from deafness to cerebral palsy, allow disabled Georgians to get an education they otherwise could not receive in standard public schools. School #202, opened in 1901, is one of six such specialized schools in the capital, Tbilisi.
The Ministry of Education, however, aims to integrate children with disabilities into regular classrooms. Georgia introduced the concept of inclusive education in 2006, in its Law on General Education, and put it into practice in 2014, after ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As of December 2017, 6,789 students with special needs were enrolled in Georgian public schools.
Specialized schools like #202 are still needed until inclusive education is fully developed, explains Eka Dgebuadze, who heads the ministry’s department for inclusive education.
A lack of financial resources and trained special-education personnel is among the challenges for inclusive education highlighted in a 2016 study by the Civic Development Institute, a non-profit that promotes equal rights.
It would be “problematic,” to shut down facilities like School #202, notes advocate Gumberidze. Standard schools, for instance, cannot teach the mobility and orientation skills that the blind and visually impaired need.
“No blind or visually impaired student who has attended a regular school has ever been enrolled in a university,” she adds.
Mastering braille, the key to these students’ education, requires ongoing instruction that non-specialized public-school teachers are not equipped to provide.
“You start slowly, but you keep up the pace as you get more practice,” explains Meri Papunaishvili, who has had all of her schooling at Public School #202. Now 17, she will graduate in 2018 and wants to study law.
Signs in braille are all around School #202 and allow students to move freely and identify different rooms without assistance.
The school follows the national curriculum, with additional classes tailored to the students’ needs, like rhythmics, which uses music and dance to train the sense of hearing and movement.
Separation from family, however, can be the cost of this instruction. Currently, 16 students from outside Tbilisi board at the school.
For rights-advocate Gumberidze, such separations are another reason for including the blind and visually impaired in standard public schools.
Some think, though, that both specialized schools and inclusive education should exist.
“Students and families should have a choice. Inclusive education can work for the blind, too, but there is no need to close down the specialized school,” says Rezo Maisuradze, the executive director of Georgia’s Union of the Blind.
Schools in rural areas should have teachers trained to educate the blind as well as Braille signs, books and any needed supplemental classes, he adds.
The former is crucial. The Ministry of Education’s team evaluating students with special needs sends all children with vision problems to School #202, including those with intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum and psycho-emotional disorders.
“Students with learning disabilities need different [teaching] methods,” laments instructor Abashia, who stresses she was not trained to teach intellectually disabled pupils.
For that reason, in 2016, the school’s management requested the education ministry not to enroll in the school students with severe intellectual deficiencies (an IQ lower than 30). The government did not agree and blindness remains the key criterion for admission into School #202.
The Union of the Blind’s Maisuradze notes that blind Georgians’ struggle for an education plants the seed for a strong motivation to work, but finding a job after graduation from School #202 is not always easy.
A government program to employ people with disability in the public sector provides jobs for 55 people, like Abashia’s sister, who is employed at the Ministry of Finance. But the private sector, some say, still resists hiring these individuals.
Activist Gumberidze tells of a friend who responded to a job ad from a call center, which allegedly refused to allow her to install a computer voice program so that she could monitor the calls.
For teacher Abashia, the key to overcoming these barriers remains integration -- a child who plays with a blind or visually impaired peer is likely to become an adult who accepts such individuals as equals.
She recalls how one university professor always asked for everyone’s homework but hers. He “used to tell me ‘I know you are prepared. You are a good girl, anyway.’”
“[It] was worse than a bullet. He’d say it because he didn’t want to look at me, didn’t want to listen to me. My blindness horrified him. I wanted to die. Do you think we cannot notice [this attitude]?”
January 2017, Unseen Borders Edition