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.
Shaban Mamedov, 17, Marneuli
“I'm told that when I was 7 months, doctors discovered that I had a virus and as a result of improper medical treatment, I lost my sight. Now I am an 11th grader at public school N 202, which is specialized for students with vision impairment. It was really difficult to leave my family and move to this school in Tbilisi, but I think I made the right decision.
My dad was the first one who noticed my musical talent. (...)
My first concert was in Marneuli in 2009. I was excited and nervous as I had to sing and play the piano at the same time, which is very difficult if you are visually impaired. I remember that the audience cried. Since then, I've participated in a variety of local and international festivals. I've even won several prizes.
I'm currently planning to record several songs in a studio and in the future I want to write my own music and words. Once I graduate, I hope to continue studying music and programming at university.
I am happy with my life. I want to address all persons with disabilities. The first aim should be for us to want to develop and grow. I think that the biggest obstacle for us is societal attitudes and existing stereotypes but we should all learn to ignore them. I have always been fighting for myself and my family has been my strength as I've fought this fight!"
Nika Kakheli, 20, Zestaponi/Tbilisi
“I’m an actor in an integrated theatre troupe called Azdak’s Garden. We have rehearsals three times a week. We stage plays and occasionally take them to other cities. Last year we performed in Ureki and Sighnaghi.
Someday I’ll become a famous actor. I want people to take pictures with me and attend my plays. The government gave us a plot of land where we can build our own theatre but we’re still looking for funding.
I have other dreams too. I want to become a bartender, but you need to graduate from at least the ninth grade to get into bartending school. Eventually, I hope to open my own beauty salon as well, in the future.”
Giorgi Tomaradze, 31, Tbilisi
“[Due to my] disability, I didn't study, or work...or doing anything during my teenage years. Like many teenagers, I spent all my time in the streets with other boys my age. I had no ambition or desire to change.
My life was uneventful until I found “Parents Bridge” [an NGO set up by parents of persons with disabilities]. As soon as I arrived here, I left life on the streets, completely. I realized that I can be productive. I gained a lot of friends and started a new life.
After graduating from high school, I continued my studies, learning woodworking at a local college. I quickly figured out that I was more interested in music and so changed course and enrolled into the para-orchestra at “Parents Bridge”. I now play the tambourine.
I love my new life and I desire that everyone with a disability will lead productive lives. Anyone can change their life if they really want to."
Marine Tsulukidze, 18, Mokhe
"I was born with low vision. (...) Growing up, I was a good student, but I was shy to read out-loud in the classroom. I was ashamed of being different and I always tried to hide my disability. The first time I noticed feeling different was in the first grade when one classmate called me “blind”. He's the only one that has bullied me openly. At home we never talked about my problems, my family avoided saying anything about it. I remember being at the education resource center once and asking if they could provide me with larger fonts for reading. My father was there and I kept worrying that he'd be upset. Later, when I decided to receive my special needs status, I couldn't tell my father to his face so I texted him - even though we were in the same room. He wouldn't speak and when I tried to explain the situation further, he retorted that his daughter will never receive such a status. My school director had to persuade my father to request special conditions for me during my school exams. My father relented but was initially against it.
Now I'm studying psychology at Tbilisi State University. I decided to study psychology so that I'm better able to understand and help myself. Going to university brings with it lots of additional challenges. Sometimes I worry that my classmates are discussing my vision problems behind my back. Because of my limited vision, I frequently have difficulties finding the right classroom or managing public transportation.
It wasn't until I moved to Tbilisi that I finally talked to my mother about the difficulties I was having with reading and functioning in the classroom. She was surprised. I was surprised too when I realized that we'd never talked about it before.
It's been a long journey but my parents have finally accepted my status. My advice to other parents out there is to accept their children as they are. Parents can sometimes make tragedies out of their child’s condition and, in doing so, make it harder for the child. I think the most important thing is talk about it out in the open. Talking about it helps to maintain the real self. Otherwise we will drown in a world of lies. We should all tell our stories so that others won’t speak for us."
Mariam Kapanadze, 28, Tbilisi
"I’m a graduate of the Theatrical University and a member of an inclusive made up of people with various disabilities. I am also part of a visually impaired drama club.
A few years ago I hosted a local TV program. I was afraid at first but I overcame my fears [and] I developed confidence in myself. The show started during a time when there was lots of interest in disabilities. when the show ended I moved on.
In my life I’ve been able to stand up to my fears. I grew up because of that. Being active helped me to become who I am now. If you are open to experiences, people around you will accept you.
People with disabilities should not be afraid to engage in activities. If they do, they provide an example to others in need. You cannot change anything being home thinking about your problems. You have to adapt. You have to fight. Maybe you have something to offer others. Unsolved problems will remain unsolved. The weight you carry will become heavier and heavier unless you do something about it."
Giorgi Kobakhidze, 20, Tbilisi.
“Several years ago my family decided to move to the United States and I lived and attended school there for a while. We recently came back to Georgia.
Once back I discovered Babale[a social enterprise set up by parents of children with Down Syndrome]. It's difficult for a person with a disability to find a job here but I tried and got lucky. I'm a woodworker now and I can also paint.
I'm pretty good at drawing animations and I like photography. Someday I'd like to return to the US and become a filmmaker. My interests - taking pictures, working with wood and drawing – are ways that allow me to express my emotions and thoughts.
Really, my life looks pretty much like everyone else's. I have friends, we go to bars. I like dancing, singing and drinking a bit too.
I have a happy life and my wish is that persons with disabilities will have a successful and bright future."
Award-winning photographer Natela Grigalashvili has been photographing children, youngsters, and adults with disabilities for the project Shuki Movida, “the light has come.” The project is supported by the McLain Association for Children, an organisation which works specifically on strengthening services and improving access for persons with disabilities in Georgia.
Millennials, February/March 2019