Covid-19 has introduced millions of people across the globe to isolation, due to social distancing measures and national emergency restrictions.
But for some, isolation is a way of life. Like many former Soviet republics, Georgia is grappling with a legacy of isolating people with disabilities, either at home or in an institution.
There are 340 people in institutions in Georgia, according to the latest statistics available (Data on nursing homes for elderly and disabled persons), and 125,104 people receive social assistance for disabilities as of 2017. The government is allocating some funds for severely disabled citizens as part of a Covid-19 social assistance package, but the number of recipients has not been reported yet.
Many communities lack services for the disabled and common misperceptions—like a fear that disabilities are a threat or are contagious—mean that people with disabilities can be trapped in a forever quarantine, according to human rights advocates.
“In rural areas, people are afraid that having a person with disabilities [PWD] within the family might send wrong messages to the public about having ‘bad genes,’ so the strict isolation of loved ones is unfortunately a common practice,” notes Esma Gumberidze.
Esma, 25, is blind and a member of the National Consultative Council for monitoring the promotion, protection, and the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Also, Esma is Georgia’s Youth Representative to the United Nations 2019/2020.
Georgia signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2014. Article #19 of the Convention states that persons with disabilities should have access to a range of in-home, residential and other community support services, such as helping them become more engaged in the community, and to prevent isolation or segregation from the community.
Esma, who is an active advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, recalls a case from a rural community, where a woman with psycho-social disability had been chained in her own backyard so no one from the village ever saw her.
“Gender plays an important role when discussing the forced isolation of people by their family members. Women are more vulnerable in such scenarios because often families fear their family members will be raped or abducted and so they are kept away from neighbors and the general public,” Esma says.
She and other advocates see this period of globally enforced isolation as an opportunity—a chance for society to gain empathy for the challenges facing the disabled in Georgia.
“I hope that the lockdown will help everyone learn that the status ‘PWD’ exists whether there is a global pandemic or not,” notes Salome Ketsbaia, who is blind.
“Covid-19 has caused double isolation for people with disabilities. While many PWDs live mostly indoors and are highly dependent on their family members, who can walk out of homes freely – now that they cannot, PWDs experience even more isolation from an outside world.”
Salome, 19, was 12 when she lost her sight, and she remembers what it felt like to go from a normal life, full of possibilities, to being isolated and stuck inside.
“We need people to assist and be more empathetic towards PWDs, so that the environment we both live in changes into one that is more accessible.”
Levan Kikishvili, 33, has experienced firsthand how access and acceptance can make a difference. Born with severe glaucoma, his family wanted to keep him at home to keep him safe.
But his grandmother was “rebellious” in her search for doctors, and finally found one in Telavi, a town in eastern Georgia. “I am so fortunate and lucky that she did. She had met a wonderful doctor in Telavi who advised them not to keep me indoors and instead to take me to the special school for blind and visually impaired children in [the capital] Tbilisi,” Levan says.
“Despite strict resistance from my family, my grandmother miraculously got me out of my village and into that special school.”
He says that being part of a community can “significantly transform the lives of people with disabilities.”
Ana Durglishvili, a psychologist, agrees that socialization is vital for humans.
“Having companions and being in society makes each one of us the way we are,” she notes.
Levan recalls that his life radically changed after he got to school.
“After enrolling in the special school, I started attending church services, where I met dozens of people, who took me to excursions and other social events. My family members are amazed to see how I deal with daily chores after being integrated into society; I am able to fulfill tasks that they had always believed I would be unable to do,” Levan says.
Human rights advocates note that people with disabilities are often “largely invisible” in Georgian society. Salome adds that people with special needs “have difficulties trusting society.”
“We fear that all they have for us is pity, while we are looking for mutual trust and understanding,” she says.
Levan says that since the national state of emergency was announced, people have been more empathetic and willing to help him.
Local grocery shops deliver products to him on a regular basis; also, despite the fact that he has already graduated from his vocational college, the school administration has allowed him to live free of charge until the pandemic ends.
“While people are under lockdown and stay at home, I feel that they are more aware of me than before. They know I might need assistance and they are always ready to help, without me asking for assistance,” Levan says.
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